Without doubt, service dog training is one of the most rewarding branches of dog training. A service dog trainer teaches dogs to help people with disabilities.
Service dogs provide stability to people having difficulties walking, comfort to people with anxiety or veterans with PTSD, and much more. These amazing dogs accomplish many remarkable things to assist their handlers, but it takes a well-educated trainer to get them there.
If you’re considering a career as a service dog trainer, there are many things to know beforehand. This article will outline everything you need to know about becoming a service dog trainer, covering everything from what a service dog does, to career options in this field.
What is a service dog?
A service dog is a trained working dog that provides assistance to people with disabilities. They are trained to perform specific tasks – which differentiates them from pet dogs or emotional support animals (ESAs).
There are several tasks a tasks a service dog can perform, from simple to complex. Examples include:
- A mobility assistance dog who retrieves objects from the ground for an individual using a wheelchair
- A medical alert dog who alerts their handler to take their medicine
- An autism service dog who can help alleviate meltdowns through deep pressure therapy.
These dogs can also secure children with mental disabilities by preventing them from wandering away or acting as a reason for people with anxiety to help them get away from situations that can trigger panic attacks. Simple or complicated, service dogs make life easier for people with disabilities by performing various tasks.
Since service dogs are vital for the daily life and well-being of disabled individuals, the right for handlers to have their service dogs with them at all times is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Businesses, state and local governments, and nonprofit organizations serving the general public must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities, regardless of their pet policy.
Why become a service dog trainer?
Training a service dog is extremely rewarding. You, as an individual, train dogs to improve the quality of life for people in need that otherwise would face difficulties – often by themselves. Knowing your job makes a difference in the community is highly motivating. It is the top reason why service dog trainers take pride in their work.
Becoming a service dog trainer is also a highly respected job title that can be a lucrative career option. Over half a million Americans rely on their service dogs in their day-to-day life. Considering this makes up a fraction of over 54 million Americans with disabilities, the demand for highly trained service dogs is only expected to increase.
It can also be a financially lucrative career choice – you can raise puppies from a young age to be expert service dogs, or train people’s dogs to become service animals.
Required personality traits and skillset
There aren’t legally-mandated standards for becoming a service dog trainer (or a dog trainer of any other type for that matter). However, this doesn’t mean anyone can – or should – be a dog trainer.
Dog training takes immense patience and empathy for dogs. Most service dogs don’t work actively. They stand by their handler’s side, waiting for a command to perform what they are trained to do. Teaching dogs to be patient requires even more patience from the trainer. A love for dogs is a great starting point, but teaching a dog to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities requires a deep understanding of service dogs.
A service dog trainer must also be open-minded to take training in different directions when needed. For example, when the dog doesn’t understand what may be a complex chain of commands, the service dog trainer should be able to introduce different ways to achieve the desired outcome. This can be as simple as breaking down the command into segments to help the dog learn at their pace.
Good communication skills, emphasizing dogs and their future handlers, and of course, understanding the training process in full detail make a successful service dog trainer. Great interpersonal skills and strong communication also helps. If you’re an aspiring service dog trainer, here is a short rundown of what to expect from the training.
What is involved with training a service dog?
If specifically chosen as a service dog candidate as a puppy, service dogs start training when they are just a few months old. The candidates are expected to be housebroken and have basic obedience training by the time they begin service dog training. It is also important to expose the service dog candidate to a range of external stimuli through effective socialization.
Depending on what the service dog will specialize in, they undergo different types of task training. For example, a service dog that will assist their handler as a stabilizer learns to tense their body so the person can get up or walk alongside them. These dogs also need to learn to pick things up from the floor for the handler, such as dropped keys. While learning to retrieve things from the ground is ongoing, trainers must ensure the dog is ready for the primary goal at all times. For example, applying pressure on the dog’s body to ensure they are prepared to stabilize the handler, even when doing other things.
Service dogs not only assist people with physical disabilities. They also help people with anxiety, PTSD, or other mental disabilities. The service dog is able to read the handler’s emotions and provides stress relief through their trained tasks.
Some service dogs can also help their handlers detach themselves from stressful situations by jumping or nipping to create a distraction. While the dog may not know the reason behind it, the handler tapping on their thighs or snapping fingers will initiate the behavior. This allows the handler to excuse themselves to ‘deal with their dog’ to withdraw themselves from situations that cause them stress.
These tasks are vital for individuals with disabilities, so service dogs must be calm, obedient, and maintain a sharp focus. Most of a service dog’s time isn’t spent actively working. They mostly wait for their handlers to give them a command. To ensure the service dog stays on task, trainers introduce various distraction methods, such as tossing toys or introducing other dogs. Service dogs in training are also exposed to real-world scenarios before they are ready. This includes taking them to crowded public spaces, such as malls and shops, or anywhere with a lot of distractions for dogs.
These help dogs maintain a sharp focus when on command, ensuring they don’t choose play over their job. For specific dog breeds with high prey drive, like the Belgian Malinois or German Shepherds, service dog trainers may introduce small animals to make sure they don’t fall victim to their natural instincts.
A dog may already understand what to do, but the real world is full of distractions. That’s why a big part of service dog training is teaching them to stay on the job. Service dogs must ignore anything that may distract them and keep the focus on their handlers. If they stay on the job without distractions getting in the way and can assist their handlers, they become ready for work.
Steps to becoming a service dog trainer
Becoming a service dog trainer obviously starts with getting the education you need to become one. The knowledge required for training a service dog doesn’t only encompass the specific training methods for these working dogs. Any aspiring dog trainer also must have an understanding of dog behavior, good communication skills, and the ability to teach a dog what you want them to do.
All these can be learned from our Service Dog Trainer program. This 18-week program is designed to teach service dog training from start to finish, and provides you with everything you need to become a successful service dog trainer.