Originally posted September 2013
Lately I have been inundated with requests to help train people’s service dogs. Here is more information about how to get started in training your own service dog. Before you go through this blog, please read the first blog I wrote about getting a service dog.
DO YOU HAVE A SUITABLE DOG ALREADY OR DO YOU NEED TO FIND ONE?
Many people email me telling me about their special dog who helps to make them feel better. Perhaps they are diabetic and their dog always comes to them when they are about to test their blood sugar level. Or perhaps they come and cuddle just when the person’s chronic pain becomes intense. Perhaps you are afraid to go out in public and you hope that your family pet might help you to do this. My question is always the same; is the dog you have suited to the work you want him to do?
To answer if your dog is suited to the work, you have to first define what work you want your dog to do. This complex question involves looking at what you do every day and where you might include your dog. If you are thinking about sending your dog to school with your child, you have to have a dog who is very calm and confident around the things that children do. You don’t in fact want a dog who is obsessively friendly with children as that would disrupt your child’s school mates. If you are looking for a dog who will accompany you to the office and alert you to alarms and sounds that you cannot hear, then you don’t want a dog who barks incessantly.
|D’fer is an example of a very rare case; he is a dog who was living in my home who happened to be suited to the work I needed in a service dog. As a professional trainer, I had the skills to recognize his potential and then to cultivate that into a successful working dog. This is the exception not the rule.
HOW DO I FIGURE OUT WHAT MY DOG’S WORK DAY MIGHT LOOK LIKE?
What your dog does will depend a lot on what you do. Take an inventory of what you do every day for a week. Include everything including bathing, brushing your teeth, cooking meals, and everything you do both in and out of the home. Then go through your week, and ask yourself what the dog would be doing at each point you have inventoried. If you shower with the assistance of a human aide, your dog should not be underfoot; the person can reach the soap and towel for you. On the other hand, if you want to shower independently, you may wish to train a dog to lie calmly beside a running shower and be able to reach items on a low shelf and hand them to you. At each step of your week, figure out what your dog will be doing. Then you can look at if your current dog is suitable or not. If you think your current dog is suitable, then you should get a trained professional to help you to determine if your dog really is suited. A second set of eyes is always a great idea. Unless you are a professional dog trainer, you really should consider getting someone else to look at what you want to do.
IF MY DOG ISN’T SUITED, HOW DO I FIND ONE THAT IS?
Hire a pro. Really, hire someone who can evaluate the dogs you meet and match them up to the work that you do. The person you hire should have experience selecting, training and placing service dogs. They may or may not have worked with someone with your particular disability profile, but they should be able to help you to determine if a dog can do the work you have outlined.
|This dog took me 6 months to find as a puppy, and then two years to train. As a training professional I need to be paid for the work I do evaluating breeds and breeders, lines and litters and selecting the right dog, for raising the puppy, for the training and training classes I provide as well as for the placement coaching I do with the person who ended up with this dog. All of that can cost a lot.
I AM ON DISABILITY, WELFARE, PUBLIC SUPPORT OR A PENSION; WILL YOU DO THIS FOR FREE?
Here is where things start to get difficult. I would love to be able to afford to find, train and place dogs for everyone who needs one. I really, really would. I too live with disability, and if I didn’t have the support of a wonderful husband, I too would be on some form of support. It is really hard to say no when someone asks me to help them, especially when I know how much my service dog does for me. The sad fact is that I have expenses related to doing the work you would like me to do, I have bills to pay and I need to eat. I cannot do this for less than what I charge.
There are programs out there that DO provide service dogs at little or no charge to disabled persons. You can find many of them listed at the Assistance Dogs International website at ADI.org. If you are approaching a professional trainer, it is fair to ask them for a possible budget, but it is not fair to ask them to cut their professional fees. You put the professional into a very difficult situation when you do that; we hate to say no, but if we say yes, we won’t be able to afford to help anyone because we will be out of business.
WHAT SORT OF BUDGET SHOULD I CONSIDER WHEN I AM PLANNING FOR A SERVICE DOG?
As of this writing, the least expensive program trained dogs run about twenty thousand dollars USD and the most expensive dogs cost about $60 000. What is the difference? This is depending upon how many dogs the program is turning out, how much they pay their trainers, and what kind of program they run. To train your own dog, you need to account for the cost of the dog (as low as $250 if you are very, very fortunate, to as high as $3500 if you are getting a rare breed that you have to research, find, and ship), a professional to help select the dog (between $250-$1500), puppy classes (anywhere from $99 for six to $800, depending on location), private consultations for the first two years (about $3000), group classes (another $3000), plus food, vet care and equipment. On the low end, that is about $8000, and on the high end, that could be about $16000. If anything goes wrong, you may have to start all over and pay all that money again.
WHERE CAN I GET THE MONEY TO GET A SERVICE DOG?
I don’t know. I wish I did, but I don’t. You can talk to local service groups, churches, friends and relations and see if anyone wants to fund you or is able to donate the money to you, but sadly, there is no central place to get money for service dogs.
I HAVE THE MONEY, I AM DISABLED, AND I WOULD LIKE SOME HELP. HOW DO I FIND A TRAINER?
There are a number of ways to find a trainer. You can look up trainers at the Counsel for the Certification of Professional Dog Trainers at ccpdt.org and find a local trainer. You can then contact the trainer and ask them if they train service dogs. If they do, then please don’t tell them all about you or the dog you hope to train. Ask them how many service dogs they have trained, what disabilities they know about, and where they learned to train. Ask them questions about how they work with clients. You are looking at hiring a professional, and at this point, you are interviewing candidates and looking for referrals. If you have a child with autism, and you call me up looking for help training your dog to help him, I am in the end going to refer you to the local program that trains dogs for autistic children. I know little about autism and would not take on a project like that.
The initial phone or email contact should be to establish if the trainer is able to help you. If they are not able to help you, please don’t spend all afternoon telling them about yourself and your dog and your hopes and desires. On the other hand, if the trainer asks you questions, please don’t change the subject or tell us about where you vacationed last year (yes, I had a client do that!). Answer the question and help us to help you. Most of us got into dog training because we like to help, and we cannot help when you are telling us things that don’t pertain to what you want to know.
Once you have found a trainer who can help you, then you need to meet and find out if this person espouses values similar enough to your values that you can work together. Do your research. If the trainer has a blog or a website, read that. Don’t worry if they have mostly written about their agility career or how they do visits to hospitals; learn about who this person is. If you work with this person then you will be spending a lot of time and money with them and you want to make sure that you have a good idea about who this person is and what they do. The time you spend doing this research is going to pay off in the end, and may save you thousands of dollars and months of time.
Once you have found a trainer who DOES the work you need, and who seems like the kind of person you want to work with, you will need to meet with that person face to face. Please be prepared to pay them for that time. Many of us will waive our fee if you have done your background work and have prepared yourself for this interview, but we should not be expected to do that. If I had been paid even minimum wage by those who have dropped in and taken up my time when I am at my office, I would be financially much better off than I am. This is my work, and I need to get paid for it if I am going to continue to do it.
WHAT IF I CANNOT FIND A TRAINER LOCAL TO ME, OR IF I DON’T WANT TO WORK WITH A TRAINER?
If you have to be your own professional, you are going to need to grow a very specific set of skills. There are fantastic resources on line that help people to learn about dog training and you can take advantage of those resources, but do be aware that if you are working on your own, your chances of success decrease a lot. One of the most difficult situations is when you have a dog who is for whatever reason just intuitive enough and well enough behaved that he can do the work without any training, and then he has to retire. This situation is difficult because the person who has this dog often doesn’t realize that the dog is not representative of what dogs are like in general. In general, dogs don’t walk out of the womb willing, able and skilled enough to do service work.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
That depends on what route you have worked out. Ideally, I would suggest you work with a trainer. Realistically though you should expect that interviewing a trainer, and then finding, purchasing, raising, training and preparing a service dog for the work he will do as an adult is a three to five year project, and at any time, the dog you have may wash out. Some sources suggest that 60% of all dogs selected wash out between the time they are selected, and they have completed the first six months of full time work as a service dog. This means that you may end up with one or more dogs in your care who are not service dogs.
Be very realistic in your expectations of yourself, your dog, the trainer and the parameters of the disability that you live with. It may take you longer to completely train a service dog. Or you might get unlucky and have a medical event that prevents you from training for a period of time. Or you might get lucky and finish ahead of schedule. If you are realistic, you won’t be disappointed.