I am frequently asked by clients and other dog trainers, “How do you become a service dog trainer?” I find it interesting that when people say, “I want to be a service dog trainer,” they usually have not thought through the whole process. Do they mean they want to actually do hands on training with individual dogs at a program or do they want to train and place service dogs privately or do they want to help disabled clients train their own dogs?
The person usually wants to train the dogs forgetting that service dog training includes the training of the team or, even more difficult, the training of a disabled person who is then trying to train their own dog. Training the right dog is easy compared to training the human part of the team.
When we were working on the Delta Society Service Dog Education System, which unfortunately has been shelved, we spent a great deal of time discussing the prerequisites for admission into the program. These included educational background as well as previous experience with both dogs and persons with a disability.
If a person expresses interest in service dog training I would encourage them to volunteer at a rehabilitation unit at a local hospital. In order to train a service dog one must understand the many facets of disability. A service animal is defined in the Department of Justice Business brief as:
“… dog that are individually trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities such as guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling wheelchairs, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, or performing other special tasks.”
As a service dog trainer one must be knowledgeable of each client’s particular disability. Is the disability static or progressive? What are the client’s strengths and weaknesses? What tasks can a dog safely be taught to assist with the disability? What other assistive devices are available to the client? How will a client’s stamina related to their disability affect training?
Service dog training is not an area that can be dabbled in. Once a dog is trained and placed with a disable client you must be willing to commit to follow up for the life of the team.
Training a service dog is expensive and the trainer is seldom paid sufficiently for the work. So what does it cost to train and place a service dog? This is hard to quantify. Most service dogs are trained by non-profit organizations. This is because most disabled people can not afford the cost of a service dog on their own. If you choose to train privately can you find clients who are willing to pay $10,000 to $15,000 for a fully trained service dog? Are you willing to maintain a ten-year commitment to provide lifetime follow-up and yearly re-testing? Here is a simplified budget based on Assistance Dog International’s minimum standards.
Service Dog Budget
|Salary for training dog (over 6 month period 120 hrs @ $25/hr)||$3,000.00|
|Training client and placement. (13 days 8 hr/day @ $50/hr)||5,200.00|
|Life time follow-up and yearly re-certification||600.00|
|Kennel care ($20 a day for 180 days)||3,600.00|
|Dog food and supplies minimum||500.00|
|Veterinarian Fees (vaccinations – hip/shoulder/elbow x-rays – neutering)||400.00|
|Cost of acquiring a dog ( $ 100- $1,000)||$1,000.00|
One of the costs that trainers seldom factor in is the disruption of their normal business while searching for the right dog and the time out of office during team training. Absorbing the costs for dogs that don’t make it can put a trainer into the red very quickly.
At the present time there is no regulation, certification or licensing of service dog trainers. While licensing of trainers is always a hot topic this is one area of dog training where the life, health, and safety of a client is truly in the hands of the trainer. A poorly trained dog that pulls over a wheel chair injuring their partner or a fearful dog that runs into traffic when their owner has a seizure is not the same thing as a dog that leaves a basic obedience class untrained. There is no place in the service dog industry for ill prepared trainers.
Learning to train service dogs correctly requires education and mentoring. You can check with local service dog programs to volunteer or apprentice if they have such a program.
Over the past twenty years the education and role of the “Service Dog Trainer” has changed. It is no longer a “see one, do one, teach one hobby but rather a professional career requiring time, education, financial outlay, and commitment to the clients, their dogs and ones own continuing professional development.
Jeanne Hampl © 2016
Jeanne is Chairman of our Handlers with Disabilities Committee.