As the demand for service dogs continues to increase, some trainers are finding that they have enough interested service dog owner-trainers to offer group training classes. Group classes offer several advantages for both trainers and clients, but there are some unique aspects of service dog training that require planning and consideration.
Advantages of Group Classes
• Camaraderie and support: Clients can support each other during the rewarding but challenging process of owner-training a service dog. The “positive peer pressure” of the group environment can motivate clients to practice their training. Also, realizing that others face similar challenges can provided needed perspective regarding their own struggles.
• Cost-effectiveness: Group classes are often more affordable than private lessons and other training options. This can allow clients who are on a budget more opportunities to train.
• Expanded client reach: In many areas, there are very few qualified service dog trainers. Providing support to every client in a private lesson format can limit the number of clients a trainer can support. Incorporating group classes allows trainers to serve a larger number of clients.
• Practice around other dogs: As is the case with all dogs, service dogs in training may be distracted by the presence of other dogs. It is vitally important for service dogs to be able to focus on their handlers, even when other dogs are nearby. Group classes provide opportunities for clients to practice around other dogs in a controlled setting.
• Varied rehearsal opportunities: Group settings can allow for more realistic rehearsal scenarios, such as practicing restaurant manners or navigating through crowds. These rehearsal opportunities can be invaluable for teams to practice their skills.
Considerations for Group Classes
• Enrollment procedures: Given the behavioral demands of service work, it is important that the dogs in the class are all appropriate candidates for the tasks their handlers expect them to perform. Prior to enrolling dogs in the class, trainers should conduct a thorough in-person behavioral assessment to ensure the dogs are suitable for service work. This requires the trainer to develop an intake process that will allow for an adequate behavioral assessment.
• Client understanding: Onboarding service dog training clients requires more upfront communication than pet dog training. These clients need to know what a service dog does. Their health care providers should be on board with the plan and involved in discussions around what tasks are suitable for the dog to perform. Service dog trainers often have extensive paperwork for their new clients to fill out. Communication around all of these topics must happen before the dog and handler enroll in the class. Incorporating some type of orientation session or allowing time to review this information in an intake appointment is important and also requires some additional planning.
• Managing expectations: Clients should be aware of the full scope of training required for a successful service dog. Before they enroll, they need to understand that one course will not prepare their dog for service work. This too can be done in an orientation session, a private lesson or a virtual appointment.
• Clear policies for public access work: Communicate policies regarding public access work, assessments and procedures clearly to prevent misrepresentation of pets as service dogs, disruptions at public establishments and risks to other service dog teams. Avoiding such incidents can help to safeguard the trainer’s business reputation, in addition to the public wellbeing. Having these policies in writing further ensures clarity and helps prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.
• Client privacy: Training of some tasks cannot be done in a group setting without revealing information about the individual’s personal health information — for example, training dogs to alert to anxiety or to respond when the client falls or has a seizure. Trainers can ask clients in advance which tasks they feel comfortable practicing in the group class. Private lessons can be used to practice other tasks. Additionally, trainers can include a release form in the group class enrollment that has been reviewed by an attorney.
• Communication with business owners: Before conducting public access field trips in locations that typically don’t allow dogs, reach out to the business owners for permission. While the laws may permit service dog teams in training to practice, small businesses might not be accustomed to having multiple teams present at once. As a gesture of courtesy, ensure that the business owner is comfortable accommodating multiple teams on their premises.
• Addressing behavior problems: Even if you assess a dog’s behavior in advance, canine behavior can change over time. Have a plan in place to handle behavior problems that may arise during the class. Be ready to address them privately and sensitively with the client.
• Inclusive instruction: Plan instruction to consider the needs of multiple clients with diverse disabilities. Be ready to incorporate various accommodations in your training demonstrations. An assistant or apprentice instructor may be helpful in some cases.
As with other aspects of working with owner-trainers, the intake process for setting up group classes poses some challenges. Implementing a “by invitation” policy for the class or requiring preliminary private lessons can help ensure the right fit for the class. Trainers new to offering group classes for service dog clients should begin with smaller groups and shorter classes to allow for flexibility and troubleshooting. While this initial upfront work may seem time intensive, service dog clients require months or even years of lessons, and this extra effort at the start will ensure that your relationship with the client is strong and functioning effectively from the start. Once a well-suited group is formed, you can develop ongoing sessions that set your dog-handler teams up for success. Additionally, even after teams graduate, they will require ongoing maintenance. Group training can serve as a wonderful way to provide this consistent support.