Every few weeks I receive call or email from heartbroken would-be service dog client. While the details of the story change, the theme has remained the same for more than 25 years.
Someone urgently wanting and needing a service dog raises a large sum of money (or pays with their own funds) to receive a dog. But, the dog never materializes. The client has already invested significant time, effort, emotion, and money. However, it has become clear (usually after months of broken promises) the trainer is either unwilling or incapable of delivering the promised animal, trust has been breached, and there is little hope of a positive resolution.
Maybe even worse than the above scenario, the client ends up with an animal completely unsuitable (by temperament or poor training) to be utilized in service dog work. Sometimes the dog is just unmanageable. Or, maybe it’s bitten someone. Not only has the client invested money and time, but, they’ve opened their heart to an animal they sincerely believed was going to be a lifelong companion, and now are faced with difficult decisions such as what to do with the animal, whether to try to get a refund, and whether this service dog thing is worth doing at all.
Don’t get me wrong here – I’m NOT suggesting that if a trainer is capable, things will never go amiss with a team. We are dealing with two living, breathing beings, and one of them doesn’t even speak English!
The best, most experienced, most reputable trainers (myself included) occasionally have situations where a team does not work out as expected. (See the FAQ section of this site for more on this issue).But, a reputable trainer is experienced enough to know the pitfalls to avoid, to see problems when they start to arise, to know when it’s best to “call it” and try another dog. Most of all, a reputable trainer will keep working to make the unfortunate situation right.
If you are considering a obtaining a service dog, be it from a non-profit organization or a private trainer, know that it is your responsibility to exercise your due diligence and choose a trainer or organization that has a track record of success, with whom you feel comfortable working
To help you to avoid situations like I’ve described above, I suggest you ask any trainers or organizations you are considering working with the questions that follow (along with any others you may have). Don’t be shy about this. Often, people seem to think that an interview about a dog is a one-way street (“Will the training organization take ME as a client?”).
That’s not the case. You are the customer. They need to win you over with a track record of success (including client references), courteous interactions, and a caring attitude toward people and dogs.
How long have you been training service dogs?
Keep in mind that while a service dog organization or company may have been in existence a long time, there is often a high turnover of staff. You need to know how experienced the trainers you are working with are, not just how long the organization or company has been in existence.
Specifically, what are your qualifications as a service dog trainer?
Being successful at other types of dog training such as obedience, protection, etc., does not necessarily qualify the person as a service dog trainer. Going to a dog training school where they spent a day or two talking about service dogs isn’t enough either.
Where do you get your dogs? What breeds do you use?
If the trainer says you should choose your own dog, this is a huge red flag! Who is supposed to be the “expert” here?
What kind of screening do you perform for health and behavior?
Do you specialize in a particular type of service dog?
What is your experience with persons with disabilities, and my particular disability?
Are you willing to let me contact, as references, several people who have working service dogs from you?
A trainer or organization ought to be able to easily come up with several happy clients with disabilities to sing their praises.
What costs are involved on my end?
What type of training philosophy/methods are used?
If I am paying for my dog, when are the funds due?
I do not recommend you paying the full amount up front if you are paying for a privately trained dog.
Where will the dog stay, and what conditions will it be in during training?
Except in the rarest of circumstances, the dog should NOT be living with you during training.
How and where will the dog placement be conducted? Will I need to travel?
After the dog is placed in my home, what follow up will I receive?
What responsibilities will I have regarding working with my dog?
Do placements ever fail?
This may sound paradoxical, but I’d be highly skeptical of anyone who said placements never fail. Either they are fibbing, or they are quite inexperienced.
When does the ownership of the dog pass to me?
Some organizations retain ownership of the dogs they train for the life of the dog. I don’t like this policy, but it’s up to you whether you can live with it.
- Beware of anyone promising the moon, particularly in the area of alerting for seizures and medical conditions. These situations are difficult and sometimes impossible to replicate during training unless the condition to which the dog is alerting has a clear scent indicator. While many dogs successfully alert, it’s often more of a talent than a trained behavior.
- While anyone, myself included, can have a bad day, the trainer or organization you choose should be generally polite, patient, and willing to listen. You are the reason for their existence!
- If you are paying for your dog out of pocket or fundraising, be wary of anyone who wants all the money up front. It would be acceptable and normal to have a portion of the funds up front, since your trainer or organization is incurring expenses as they train your dog.
In this article, I’ve attempted to help potential clients educate themselves in how to choose a trainer or organization that is right for them. In doing so, I’ve painted a fairly dark picture of what can happen when someone places their trust in the wrong trainer. I would like to say, however, that I think the majority of trainers who have failed to provide appropriate service dogs are not attempting to defraud anyone. These (mostly) experienced dog trainers simply believe that by virtue of their previous dog training experience, or tangential experience with service animals, they are qualified and able to produce dependable results. It isn’t until later, when they are neck-deep in a quagmire of team problems, that the gaps in their knowledge and abilities become evident. This is why it is extremely important that you, as a customer, ask the right questions and gather as much information as possible before choosing a trainer/organization.
Finally, if you found this article helpful, or have feedback regarding it, I’d love to hear from you. Please use the form on the contact page of this site.