By Debby Kay ©September 2015 all rights reserved
After a recent discussion about the complication of service dog training with a fellow pro trainer I wanted to devote this month’s blog to the topic. It appears that when we compared notes about discussions with other non-service dog trainers there are several common misconceptions about this type of dog training.
This will probably come as a shock to some people, but training a service dog is a lot more than teaching a dog to sit, stay, down, and come. It is true that service dog manners in public under all situations must be the very best possible in canine performance, but there is so much more to service dog training than good obedience training, and this is where I think many trainers might have a misunderstanding about this type of training. I would like to look a three points in particular that may help to clarify things.
The human element in any type of dog training is always one of the more challenging points for a dog to deal with, but the service dog trainer has an added component to this challenge and that is the medical condition of the dog’s handler. Depending on what this condition is and how the individual is affected can play a huge part in the long-term success of the team. Many of the illnesses that drive people to seek a dog for assistance are not as clear and uncomplicated as, for example, being deaf. Take the case of someone who has gone blind from having diabetes. This combination can create instances where a dog is being asked to do two jobs at one time and requires a special dog to handle the tasks. There can be complications from the diabetes that also have to be taken into consideration when a trainer is preparing a dog for someone. Both handler and trainer need to remember that the dog never replaces proper medical protocol. These dogs, however, are certainly a great additional asset to the people who comes to depend on them for many things to help make their life more comfortable. It is often difficult to keep the new handler’s perspective in focus on the fact that this wonderful new asset they have is still a dog, with all the mundane requirements of a dog, not the least of which is regular maintenance training.
There is another aspect of the human here that many of the dog trainers also do not realize and that is the very personal nature of service dog training. By this I mean that you develop a very close and personal relationship with your service dog client and for some dog trainers this is an uncomfortable situation. This affiliation continues beyond the initially placement of the trained dog with the individual as you help the new team develop their bond with each other. Often you as the trainer will get caught up in their medical crisis and will have to be there to take the dog back as they grapple with all the complications of living with their medical issues. This can create a stress for the dog trainer that is beyond what they normally experience in their business and if unprepared it can create problems. I do not know of any way to avoid this, it is just something that a service dog trainer has to prepare for and accept as part of the service they will be providing to the client.
The final point I want to make about service dog training is that the obedience training and special task training that goes into these dogs is not like teaching a pet dog cute tricks. Often the special skills taught to these dogs are life-saving actions for the people who have them. They need to be performed by the dog all the time, under any circumstance, and often in the presence of a sick person who cannot guide them. When a trainer assumes the responsibility of the dog’s training they need to have a full understanding of the person’s need for each and every particular dog skill they will be teaching the dog. One thing I have learned in training service dogs is this will not be the same for every person. But more importantly, the dogs need to learn to carry out their tasks in spite of the person they are helping. For example, a person may be having a medical crisis and completely not be thinking of the dog at the time but will still need that dog to stay with them and perform whatever task(s) are appropriate. This is not something that is easy to train, and often for a service dog trainer it will mean training in the middle of the night or under other unusual circumstances.
In conclusion, to say you train service dogs if you are a dog trainer should mean you are knowledgeable enough about medical conditions to know how to train the dogs to best help the person they will be paired with and also willing to get more personally involved with the team. There is a lifetime commitment here that is indeed very special. As my friend and I concluded our discussion, we were sobered by the fact that this past year we both had lost clients who had become dear friends to their illnesses, a reminder of the somber nature of this work.