by Veronica Morris, PhD
One question that often comes up when people are starting to train a service dog is “How do I find a trainer?”. Most people assume you need a trainer who has had experience in service dog training. However, this isn’t the case.
This article will delve into the kind of trainer to look for, how to pick a trainer, and the pros and cons of “board and trains”. Most of this advice will apply to finding a trainer for any type of non-guide service dog, too.
The kind of trainer
There are some great trainers out there who have experience with psychiatric service dogs. But they are few and far between. If you can find one in your area, great! But you would be in a tiny minority of people to find a good psychiatric service dog trainer in your area.
Service dog trainers that specialize in other types of service dogs may be able to help you. Personally, though, I’ve not had great luck with this.
Many service dog trainers are unfamiliar with the specific needs of psychiatric service dogs and tend to have biases about what these dogs should do or biases about mental illness. For example, I know someone who had a trainer who was used to training mobility dogs. That trainer insisted that she train her dog to retrieve and to walk through doors in a particular way—neither of which the disabled person wanted or was comfortable with. I’ve known more people who have been rejected by traditional service dog trainers who don’t support psychiatric service dogs.
But there is something most people don’t know: you don’t need a service dog specific trainer!
There are two broad categories of things a service dog needs to be trained to do. They must be trained to do work or tasks to mitigate their person’s disability. And they must be trained to behave well in public (public access training). There are two types of pet dog training that lend themselves well to these categories.
Work and tasks to mitigate a disability often involve training a dog to do a behavior in response to a cue. It might be that when the person’s breathing changes, the dog needs to nudge their arm. Or it could be that when the person cries, the dog needs to jump in their lap and give kisses. Or it might be that when the person says “meds” the dog fetches a medicine case and then a bottle of water from the fridge. There are many examples, but in each case you are training recognition and response.
This training process is actually very similar to trick training.
In trick training, you are training the dog to do something fun in response to a cue (be it a verbal cue or not). They are recognizing the cue (for example, sneezing), and providing a response (fetching a tissue). The person in trick training doesn’t need these behaviors for any reason other than they are fun! However, these same methods that are used for trick training can be used to train disability-required assistance. So one thing to look for in a trainer is their ability to train tricks.
Public access training sounds like something extremely specialized that only a service dog trainer would know about, right? Wrong!
Let’s think about a typical trip through a grocery store. You walk into the store and turn right. You notice some grapes that have fallen on the ground and your dog walks around them and leaves them alone. Suddenly there are a bunch of shopping carts in the way and you have to slalom around them. You go down an aisle, then remember you forgot something earlier in the aisle so you make a tight 180 degree turn. You stop frequently, having your dog sit at your side as you read labels or grab food off the shelves. And if you’re like me in a store, you frequently find yourself turning in circles as you remember one item or another that you forgot.
This activity is actually very similar to the dog sport called “rally obedience” (or just “rally”). Rally is a relaxed sport in which dog and human teams navigate a course. This is how it is similar to agility, except it is not a race and it is not full of jungle gym exercises for your dog. Instead of doing something acrobatic at each station, you do an obedience exercise based on a sign’s instruction and sometimes a cone setup. Now let’s think about a typical rally course…
You start the course and see a “Right turn” sign. Next you go into an “Offset figure 8” where you and your dog must do a figure 8 pattern through cones while ignoring distractions. Then there’s a “Serpentine weave once” where you and your dog have to weave around some cones. “About turn right” is next up, where you turn around 180 degrees in the right direction. “HALT- 1, 2 and 3 steps” is next where you take a step and have your dog sit by your side, then two steps in heel and sit by your side, then three steps in heel and sit by your side. Finally you encounter some 270° and 360° turns.
If you look at this rally example and the grocery store example, you’ll see that each grocery store challenge is actually a rally sign! Additionally, people who compete in rally very often have to travel to competitions. This means they are accustomed to training their dogs to behave in hotel rooms, at outdoor cafes, and in the busy and sometimes chaotic atmosphere of a rally competition. All this together means that trainers who compete in rally (or competition obedience) are often well-equipped to help you train public access behaviors.
I’ve had great success finding trainers to help me with my service dog training by looking for trainers who have experience with both rally and trick training. I focus on rally training in my search.
Generally, an experienced rally trainer will be able to handle trick training. They should be able to help you produce work or task training plans if you talk about it in terms of a specific end result you want your dog to do with a specific cue. You probably shouldn’t talk with them about what you want as if service dog training is a whole separate type of dog training that requires special trainer skills.
Some rally trainers might just need a little reassurance that they can problem-solve using their trick training mindset in the same way they’re used to, but this time the “tricks” are to help you with something you need! You and your trainer can consult my other article for tips on the work training that might seem more complicated (“How to train a service dog anxiety alert/response”).
Similarly, there are excellent rally trainers who may be unaware of the connection between their sport and service dog training. Fortunately, transferring their skills to service dog training is just combining their rally experience with basic exposure work that gets the dog more comfortable in various no-pets environments. This means helping the team gradually get experience moving around in increasingly challenging environments—always keeping the exposures below threshold for the dog and the person!
How to pick a trainer
The most important thing in finding a trainer is to find one whose training philosophy you agree with. We recommend positive reinforcement based training, as it is key that our dogs work for us for the joy of it.
Methods that rely on aversives (pain-causing collars, harsh words, etc.) can create an obedient dog. However, they can also cause a dog to shut down or react aggressively, and when they do work, the dog may behave because of fear or the threat of pain.
Being a service dog is very stressful, and it is ideal to have your dog working because they enjoy working, they think working is fun, and they don’t feel that they HAVE to work. There are other reasons for positive reinforcement training that we won’t go into here, but I will summarize by saying that there is a lot of scientific research showing that dogs trained with positive reinforcement learn faster and have fewer stress hormones while learning. This may be why service dog programs have been transitioning to it!
Most people wrongly assume that a “certified” trainer is going to be the best type of trainer out there. While some certifications are really difficult to achieve and demonstrate a lot of hard work and talent, there are many standards of “certification” out there. I’ve seen many people become “certified dog trainers” who have had little more than a few weeks of casual instruction. But even the toughest certification cannot guarantee a good trainer or fit for you.
Instead of memorizing what all the different types of certification mean, I prefer to talk with trainers about their skills and history, and to see them in action.
You can ask trainers how many years they’ve been training. How many dogs they’ve trained. What type of training they specialize in. How much education and of what type they’ve had in training. Of course ask about their training methods.
When doing this, don’t just say “Do you use positive reinforcement?”. There are trainers who use both positive and aversive methods. So ask specifically “Do you use a clicker? Do you use prong collars? Shock collars? Choke collars? What do you do when the dog does something wrong?” These questions can help you determine what type of trainer they are. Ask what dog sports they compete in. Ask for contact information of previous clients so that you can talk with them about the trainer’s skills and abilities.
You can also ask to watch a class that they teach. This can be helpful for observing how they interact with their clients as well as their training methods. The best dog trainer in the world might not be the right fit for you if you can’t interact with them well and learn from them.
Personally, I like to try out trainers by taking group classes of easy stuff that I already know. Repeating classes is never a waste, first of all. You can always perfect the commands—like get that sit a little bit straighter, have them down a little faster, etc. You can also practice working around other dogs (usually the biggest distraction for a service dog!). And finally, since you already know the stuff in the class, you can spend your time evaluating the trainer!
Watch how the trainer interacts with the dogs in the class. Listen to how much background information about the science of dog training that they are giving. Evaluate if you like this person and would feel comfortable sharing your personal medical information with them (if you want them to help with work and tasks, you’re going to have to tell them how you are affected by your disability).
When I try out a trainer by taking a group class, I often don’t tell them I am training a service dog. I go into it without giving them any expectations of me or my dog. I want them to see us as a blank slate with no preconceived notions. That way I can judge them more accurately and not have a spotlight on me.
Finally, make sure your dog likes the trainer! If my dog doesn’t like the trainer, it’s a no go!
Once I’ve tried out a trainer with group classes, then I approach them and explain that I am training my dog to be my service dog and ask for their help. Every time I’ve done this, they’ve accepted. Though sometimes I’ve had to explain to them how they are qualified to help me with their experience in rally and/or trick training. If they still aren’t comfortable, ask them if they know any other trainers in the area who might be able to help.
Some places to look for a trainer might be to ask the local humane society, look for dog training clubs, ask your breeder, or look on websites like Yelp that allow users to leave reviews.
Board and trains
Many people feel overwhelmed by training or have trouble with motivation. It seems like sending your dog away for two weeks to learn everything they need to know would be a great thing, right?
Actually, we don’t recommend it for most cases. We’ll look at why this is, but also the rare case when a board and train might make sense.
The most important thing when training a psychiatric service dog is that the dog responds to your specific cues, knows your baseline, and how to respond when your baseline is disrupted. A baseline is your typical levels of anxiety and other moods. Sending your dog to another trainer for two weeks can weaken your bond with your dog—especially if it is a new dog to you. Additionally, that trainer is never going to be able to exactly replicate your baseline and your responses to your environment. So it’s likely that you’ll need to supplement this training afterward.
Most board and trains work with the dog a few hours a day. This seems great, a few hours a day of instruction! But on the other hand, what is the dog doing when it’s not being trained? Most board and trains keep their dogs in kennels most of the time. This is time your dog is sitting there alone.
It can be hard to find positive-only board and trains. And even when you find ones that say they use only positive methods, some may sneak in other methods while you’re not there to observe. This leads into another concern, which is how comfortable are you having someone else handle your dog? This dog is going to be your lifeline, your independence. Do you fully trust someone else to handle that for you for a few weeks?
It is imperative if you do use a board and train to talk extensively with the trainer(s) about the methods they use, how exactly they will accomplish what they say they will, and so on.
The required work input for a board and train from you the handler is going to be about the same as if you went to private lessons. The board and train can train the basics, but dogs don’t generalize well. You’re going to have to go back and reinforce everything the board and train taught if you want your dog to both remember them and perform them for you. That means you’ll need to spend just as much time as the trainer does if not more reinforcing the things the trainer taught your dog.
There is no magic spell that allows you to have (and maintain!) a perfect service dog without doing any training yourself!
Finally, board and trains are often driven by performative results rather than deeper understanding. They tend to rush through things to get to a short-term “guaranteed” result rather than taking their time and making sure that deep learning and knowledge acquisition is occurring.
This means your dog will be more likely to forget the commands they learn, or not be able to perform them in different situations. If they are public access training your dog, they tend to rush things to provide short-term results rather than going really slowly to make sure the dog is never overwhelmed. Just like with us, it can take a lot of practice for their brains to develop those lasting, reliable pathways.
If you can train even the littlest bit, generally speaking it’s better to invest the same money on private lessons with a trainer you trust and have them help you train your dog.
There might, however, be some instances where a board and train would be helpful. For example, if you will be in the hospital or traveling to a country where your service dog isn’t recognized, you might need to board your dog anyway. If you have to board your dog anyway, it wouldn’t hurt to have a trainer you trust do some training with your dog while you are away.
If you don’t need to be separated from your dog, I recommend private training sessions much more than board and trains. This is going to be about the same cost as a board and train, but instead of just your dog learning something, you both will be learning something.
For those of us who struggle with motivation when we’re on our own, working with a private trainer can really help with those motivation issues. Sometimes, this means you’ll end up spending the bulk of your weekly training minutes while you’re with the private trainer, because they really motivate you in the session.
Of course, it’s best when you can really keep up the training sessions on your own in between (even in daily five-minute bursts), but having that in-person scheduled meeting can provide the inspiration to advance your training instead of just maintaining. And if group training classes motivate you, they are a lot cheaper than private lessons. Personally I use mostly group classes with an occasional private lesson.
There is less common option that is a hybrid between private sessions and board and train. This might be good for someone who’s tried it the usual way, but really needs extra assistance with training.
The trainer doesn’t board your dog in this situation, but takes/trains the dog for a session or half session, like 30 minutes, and usually teaches your dog something new. In another session or half session, the trainer works with you and your dog, reinforcing what the dog has just learned and teaching you how to keep up with the training. This way you are both learning and you keep the dog with you when it’s not being trained.
In summary, it’s very likely you can find a trainer who is not a service dog specific trainer to help you train your service dog. Look for trainers that specialize in rally and/or trick training. Ask the trainer lots of questions and observe their training methods to make sure they are a good fit for you. In general, avoid board and trains.
Happy training! And remember that it usually takes a couple of years to train a service dog. A common comment in the service dog world is “slow is fast”. This means that if you go more slowly and take your time at every step along the way, you are going to progress to fully trained service dog faster overall than if you rush training and have bad experiences and have to go back and re-learn or do more exposure. You don’t need to rush!