Public access work is demanding for service dogs, and very few dogs are suited for this role. When working with owner-trainers, unfortunately, you may find that clients have chosen a dog for service work who is not appropriate to train for public access work.
Conversations like this are actually familiar ground for pet dog trainers. Consider how many pet owners have unrealistic expectations for their dog: The owner who wants to take their dog-aggressive dog to the dog park? The owner who believes their new puppy should stop mouthing tomorrow? Pet dog trainers already have extensive experience helping owners understand their dogs, and setting realistic expectations and goals. This is no different; owner-trainers need education on what is actually attainable for their dog.
Tips for conducting challenging conversations:
- Show empathy. Acknowledge the owner’s hopes and feelings of disappointment.
- Emphasize the dog’s positive qualities. I have had some dog owners tell me “the trainer did not like my dog” when, in fact, that’s not what the trainer intended to communicate at all. If the conversation focuses on the negatives, the owner may misinterpret the message and believe the trainer does not “like” the dog, in which case the rest of the details will be completely lost.
- Educate the owner. Owners need to grasp what service dog training entails and why this is a stressful and demanding job. Working service dogs make it look easy. Owner-trainers need to understand all of the ways in which the training process and the work they want their dog to do will be impeded by the dog’s temperament or behavior challenges.
- Use analogies to facilitate understanding. For instance, if the owner thinks that training should only take a couple of months, explain how a s is like kindergarten. A service dog needs to go all the way through middle school, high school and college, and then graduate with a PhD.
Training Is Still Needed
Even though the dog may not be appropriate for service dog work, the client and dog still need training services! In some cases the owner may benefit from the dog’s help at home, and the dog may be suited to be trained as an at-home-only service dog, sometimes referred to as a “skilled companion” (make sure the owner is fully on board with not taking the dog to no-pets-allowed locations, of course). In other cases, the dog may need training or a behavior change plan.
To learn more strategies for working effectively with owners, an excellent resource is the book The Human Half of Dog Training, by Risë Van Fleet, PhD, CDBC.