Sunday, January 25, 2009

55. How to Choose a Service Dog Trainer to Help You Train

I was recently asked how a person would go about finding a trainer that will help them to train their own service or assistance dog. Here is my answer.

The first assumption is that the trainer needs to be an experienced service dog trainer. This is not true. The most important part of a service dog is that the dog can pass the public access test. Here's another link: IAADP  This means the dog must behave appropriately (calmly, no barking etc) in public, be able to perform common cues (sit,  down, wait, leave it etc) and not be fearful or aggressive towards people, animals and the wide array of situations s/he will be faced with when assisting their handler in public. This is the hardest (and often the longest) part of the training so choose a trainer that is going to set you and your dog up to succeed and you will look forward to working with in the long-term.

1. Start by looking for a trainer that fits your personal training philosophy for both you and your dog.
a) Ask around (friends with dogs, dog clubs, veterinarian etc). Check the internet for trainers near you.
There are several directories to help:
regional training associations Vancouver Island Animal Training Assoc (VIATA)

Choosing a trainer that uses positive reinforcement allows you to build a strong bond and create an confident and eager worker willing to take risks during learning. A trainer who understands how to correctly apply the 'quadrants and principles of operant conditioning' will help to ensure they understand how to break behaviors into small enough steps so your dog will be successful at each step. Dogs that get frustrated or who are punished (corrected) typically shut down and do not offer the creative and intelligent behavior choices a service dog will need to offer during his/her career. Look for an "About" page on their web-site. It should outline their training philosophy and techniques, maybe even mentors. 

Do be aware the term "positive" is applied in many ways so just because a trainer calls themselves "positive" does not mean you will get one that uses primarily reinforcement-based training. "Balanced" trainers use a combination of both positive reinforcement and correction-based approaches (positive punishement). Dominance-based trainers tend to use force, physical manipulation and intimidation (such as invasion of personal space) to get behaviors, much emphasis is placed on verbal praise and the use of food or toys is rare.

b) Since you are the other half of the service dog team,  the trainer will need to be able to anticipate and accommodate your needs as well. How do they interact with you personally? Are you comfortable with them? What training have they done to learn how to train people? TAG teach (Teaching with Acoustic Guidance) is good certification to have. Training as a teacher is handy. Training in ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) is a bonus as is anyone with a Master's in Behavioral Psychology. Anyone that has worked with children, people with special needs or disabilities (and enjoyed it) may be a good choice as they understand how to adapt their training to your needs. What teaching experience have they had?  Choose someone that can provide structure, is organized and can keep you on track since the process may take up to 12 months or more. 

2. Next, look at their dog training credentials. Is the trainer a current member of any recognized training associations? Do your research on the internet and find out the methods endorsed by these organizations.
Have they taken training or been certified by a recognized organization? Are they a tester or instructor for any? Which ones? 
Do they participate in regular (at least annual) professional development? (That is, keeping current on new ways to teach both you and the dog?) It might be in-person workshops or seminars, could be on-line learning or even purchasing books and DVD's, reading magazines etc.)

3. Do they have an area of specialty? This will be one or two areas they have a greater knowledge of due to either a special interest or more experience. (might be puppies, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, working with children, service dogs, etc).  Trainers that list many "specialities" are likely using them as keywords on their site be found by search engines. 

4. When you have narrowed your list to 2 or 3 possible trainers, ask them some questions. Talk to them in person, on the phone or via video chat. E-mailing is usually too time consuming. Make an appointment to ensure they have time to talk to you. Explain that you are doing research to find a suitable trainer to help you train you and your service dog for the behaviors in the Public Access Test.

a) Ask them who handles the dog. If at any time does someone other than you (dog's partner) handles the dog? In what situations? Are you comfortable with that?
b) What type of training equipment do they use (collars, harness, food, objects, people etc). 
Some collars use force and punishment (prong, choke, e-collar) while others are designed to avoid that (head collars, front clip harnesses) but still give you more control over the dog's behavior. 
c) Where do they train with you? At your home? Their facility? Public places later on? 

d) If a dog doesn't do what they want, how do they respond? For example, sit. (Answers will vary from 'make him', 'push his butt down', to 'start with where the dog is at (assess for understanding, distractions, stress level etc) and train from there'. The second answer is preferred.) 

e) Can they list 5 calming signals given by dogs in a stressful situation? (if they don't know what signs a dog uses to communicate stress (look aways, whale eye, yawning, lip licks, sniffing, avoidance etc), this is not a good sign as they probably also don't understand thresholds.

f) Can they tell you when the various fear periods are in a dog's development? These will affect performance during training, especially during adolescence. (fear periods are 8-11 weeks, 4 to 8 months, 6 to 14 months)

g) Do they do an assessment of  the abilities of you and your dog? It might a verbal or a practical or both.

h) do they offer semi-private or private lessons if needed?

i) How do they deal with aggression and fear? (listen for methods to reveal their knowledge level as much as a general approach). Methods such as forcing a dog to ensure something it is afraid of (called flooding) or correcting the dog for growling, barking (called positive punishment) etc is now recognized as being damaging to both the dog and the relationship. Adding distance between the trigger until the dog stops reacting and using food or play to change how the dog feels are accepted ways to deal with fear or aggression.

j) what teaching methods do they use to help you learn how to teach your dog? 

(Verbal explanations, visual info (posters etc), demonstrations with their own dog, demo with your dog, mirrors, video recording of training sessions, written logs and /or journals, step by step videos, reading assignments, handouts?)  Is it okay if you write things down?

k) As they explain what they do, listen very closely to the language they use. "The dog MUST Do...", "We use only praise.", "You push the dog's bum down.",  "The dog is being dominant." or  "Your dog is part of your pack." rings alarm bells in a handler looking for a positive reinforcement approach. A trainer who recognizes that a dog (and their human) always has a choice in the behaviors they do during learning is one who may understand how a dog learns. One of those choices is to say "No." Words like "luring", "capturing" and "shaping" are good ways to elicit get behavior.
l) What will they do if your dog develops fears or aggression? What set ups they use to retrain this? Do they use controlled situations (lots of distance, or visual barriers to start using fake dogs or dolls for children (called decoys) to start the dog well below fear threshold. Do they use muzzles if necessary?
m) Can they tell you what "underthrehold", counter conditioning, systematic desensitization, Behavioral Adjustment Training (BAT), Look at That (LAT) mean? 
n) Ask them names of authors and other dog trainers they emulate. Research them to see how positive they are. Some names (in no particular order): Paul Owens, Ian Dunbar, Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, Grisha Stewart, Kathy Sdao, Nando Brown, Coppinger's, Steve White, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, Emma Parsons, Sue Ailsby, Pamela Dennison, Victoria Stillwell, Leslie McDevitt, Silvia Trkman, Emily Larlham, Eva Bertilsson, Melissa Alexander, Steve Dale
o) How open are they to using/knowledgeable of additional approaches such as Telling Touch, body wraps, massage, recorded sounds, flower essences, etc
p) Ask what they believe the social structure of dogs is. The most current research indicates dogs  have a very loose social structure based on avoidance of confrontation and maintaining social peace. They DO NOT live in a dominance hierarchy, nor in packs. Typically trainers who believe in social hierarchies will also use force and correction during training. Research also indicates the use of both positive reinforcement and correction/positive punishment together is very confusing to dogs and results in less learning.
q) Ask what training tools they use. The use of non-restrictive body harnesses are preferred. Head halters need to be specifically conditioned on the dog and they train you to use them properly avoiding jerking or lifting in their use. A flat collar is used for tags. R+ trainers will not use choke chains, prong collars, electronic (shock) collars or harnesses that tighten on the dog like front clip harnesses. Watch how they use the tools. A leash can be used aversively by popping or jerking, or can be used as an emergency back-up only. The latter is what you want to aim for. 

5. Go back and review the info you have gathered about each trainer. Which might be a good fit for you? Find out by watching classes at different levels (beginner, intermediate and advanced) to see what both dogs and handlers can do). The trainer should allow you to watch for free to help you decide if you like their teaching approach to dogs and people. Ensure that the trainer you watch is the one you will be working with. Take notes so you can compare them later. Record things you like as well as concerns you have. The trainer should be able to address to your satisfaction any concerns that may affect your service team's experience. Note things like, do they talk with each person? Can s/he recognize that a student is having trouble and help them to be successful in that lesson? Are the lessons structured for a group or individuals? Did the trainer do a demonstration with a dog first? Did the trainer use visuals or props? Did she talk the class through each step?

6. While at the class, evaluate their training location for your needs. Look for wheelchair accessible washrooms, ramps, acoustics, temperature, lighting, windows etc.  What specific things will you need that aren't there? Is the trainer willing to make alterations? Will the facility work long-term for you and your dog?  Think about the colder seasons too.

7. How big are the classes? Smaller is better. Classes of 4 to 6 dogs is ideal to start. Larger can be chaotic, even if there is more than one instructor. If they have 12 or more dogs in a large space, even with a second trainer, it probably isn't the class for you as you won't get enough personal interaction with the trainers and it is harder to see and hear and understand in larger classes with the instructor standing far away especially with poor acoustics. If this is the only option, start with private classes so you and your dog already know the behaviors before taking group classes. That way, you can work on using the class to add distractions, rather than having them work against you while learning new behaviors.

8. Get references and ask previous clients questions about the training process, effectiveness of the trainer, ability to adapt training to the person or family's special needs etc.

9. Use all of what you found and how you feel about the trainer to decide if s/he is a good match for you and your dog.

10. Book several classes and see how they go. Re-evaluate after the sessions are over. What progress did you and your dog make? How did you feel about the sessions?  Can you work with this trainer in the long run?

11. Keep your research records as you may need one trainer to help with the basics, another to help with the specific service tasks and still another to help as specific challenges crop up. If you learn to trust them, this gives you a support system to draw from.