I want to bring my dog on the plane on my next vacation. Can you certify him as a service dog?
Can you help me train my dog-reactive dog to do service work?
I am moving in a month. Can you train my dog as a service dog before I move?
Responding to these requests can feel tricky. There are strategies that can help trainers respond effectively and provided needed support to potential clients and their dogs.
Air Travel Requests
Sometimes it really appears that a person wants to misrepresent their dog as a service dog for the sole purpose of having the dog fly in the cabin of a plane. Trainers often feel understandably angered and frustrated by these requests. The first step in responding effectively is to take a deep breath and approach the potential client with an open mind. As someone with a disability myself, I can understand why trainers are upset by these requests. However, in many of these cases, the individuals are misinformed about the law and simply need a little education. Also, in some of these cases the individual may really benefit from training the dog as a service dog, and they are simply not communicating fully in their initial outreach to a trainer.
The laws and regulations governing air travel with service animals have undergone numerous changes over the years, leading to widespread confusion. While dog trainers in the service dog community are often well-versed in the industry terminology and legal updates, there is still a misunderstanding among the public. Even respected media outlets still routinely misuse terms like service animal, emotional support dog and therapy dog. Many individuals simply need education regarding the laws and requirements surrounding air travel with service animals.
Additionally, while it is understandable why dog owners would prefer not to transport their dog in cargo, most dog owners do not appreciate how much effort goes into training a service dog to behave calmly on a plane, and they do not understand how stressful flying is for a dog, even when the dog is traveling in the cabin with their owner.
I have encountered a number of cases where, after discussing the owner’s goals more deeply, the owner shared that the dog appeared to have separation anxiety. These owners were unaware that separation anxiety was a problem that could be addressed and viewed bringing the dog with them when they traveled as the only way to address the issue. These cases are important to identify to help both the owner and the dog.
Dogs That Are Inappropriate for Service Work
Another common request that trainers receive is for assistance training dogs that are unsuitable for service work. These may be dogs with behavioral challenges, health problems or other issues that disqualify them from service work. While these conversations may be challenging, the people making such requests are potential clients who genuinely need help. These clients can benefit from education regarding what is actually involved in service work. Often owners underestimate the pressures of public access work. They also need to understand what behaviors can be changed via training and what cannot be changed. They require guidance about training and activities that their dog would enjoy and, importantly, they need to learn what behavior services their dog actually needs.
Analogies can be a useful tool in helping owners better understand the challenges of service work. For example, many people can imagine how stressful it would be to work in a job that is not the right fit. Clients must understand that service dog work is a job that similarly requires a particular set of characteristics and skills. Some of these clients may benefit from an at-home-only service dog, and in some cases the dog may be appropriate for that role as well. However, in other cases the dog needs a behavior consultation. For ethical and safety reasons, it is critical that trainers do not take on clients who have needs that the trainer is not qualified to meet. Developing a list of local behavior professionals you can confidently refer clients to is a great way to provide value, even if you can’t help someone as their trainer, and those referral relationships often end up being mutually beneficial.
Unrealistic Training Requests
It is common for people to approach trainers asking for assistance training a service dog in a few weeks. Most people simply do not have any idea how long it takes to train a service dog. Prospective clients do not need to know all of the details, but they do need to be made aware that service dog training can take a year, and often longer, depending on various factors. Unfortunately, clients often share that they need help right away. It may help to make people aware that the dog may be able to be taught some tasks to help at home earlier in the training process.
Spreading the Word
There are different ways trainers can provide this type of education. One option is setting up an initial orientation session virtually or, if the trainer receives many training requests for service work, a scheduled question and answer session for a group of prospective students. Trainers’ websites are a valuable tool for providing information on service dog industry basic definitions and links to legal information. A well-written website can greatly reduce the number of unrealistic training requests and help attract clients who are committed and educated regarding your process. By leveraging your website in this way, trainers can provide valuable education, attract realistic service dog clients and better help people and their dogs.