It’s always exciting when a service dog team transitions from “in training” to working independently. However, as trainers know, service dogs are never really done with training, so a plan needs to be in place to make sure teams maintain their skills over time.
Traditional service dog programs often have clients who are not in their immediate geographic area. Their clients may travel significant distances to their location to be matched with a dog and educated on how to work with the dog. However, most pet dog trainers work with owner-trainers in their community. This proximity allows trainers to transition teams to a maintenance schedule slowly. For example, trainers can shift teams from weekly to biweekly and then monthly training sessions over a span of months. They can dynamically adjust the schedule to one that works best for the individual team. Trainers should also educate clients from the start on what the process will be for maintaining the training throughout the dog’s service career.
Virtual appointments are a wonderful option for programs working with teams that are not geographically close enough for regular in-person training. Trainers can use technology like Zoom or FaceTime for live sessions, or ask teams to send video clips of their training and provide feedback via email.
Keep Communication Lines Open
It’s important for owners to feel comfortable sharing both their successes and their training challenges. Trainers can encourage owners to share by periodically checking in via phone or email and asking specific questions about training and behavior. Rather than asking “How are things going?” the trainer can ask “How is the dog doing with helping you transfer from your wheelchair?” or “How is the dog responding to your cues when you are at the supermarket?”
Use a Team Approach
If you have several teams that have graduated, set up group practice sessions for them. Group sessions can include a mix of training games, practicing known skills and public access rehearsal field trips. The camaraderie that develops can help motivate your graduates to maintain their training over time. Seeing other teams’ successes and struggles is a wonderful morale boost for owner-trainers, who may not have anyone in their daily lives who has experiences similar to their own.
Support Beyond Training
When you are checking in with teams, remember to consider all of the dog’s needs, including the their health, exercise and enrichment needs. Clients need to be reminded to give their dogs down time and to watch for signs of stress. They may need reminders and even refresher sessions on things that seem basic to you as a professional trainer. Supporting clients with their dog’s maintenance can help keep teams working happily for their full working career.