Choosing a trainer is as important as the all the other steps in the assistance dog process. We have devised information on things to look out for and questions to ask when trying to find a suitable trainer.
Find a reward-based, force free trainer
This is a trainer who uses force free methods and rewards. Depending upon your dog, rewards can be food, toys and/or anything your pup loves (Ryan, 2011). This type of trainer will never force your dog to do things and will never use harsh punishment. Harsh punishment includes (but is not limited to):
Some trainers call themselves “balanced trainers” These trainers claim to use a mix of positive reward-based training techniques and “harsh” punishment. We do not recommend using this type of trainer or any other trainer that uses forceful or harsh methods as dogs may react badly to this type of training. This type of training may exacerbate problematic behaviours (Blackwell et al., 2008; Hiby et al., 2004) and issues with the dog and handler relationship (Eskeland et al., 2007). It is of utmost importance that all dogs are trained with positive reinforcement as this facilitates with increased obedience and learning ability (Makowska, 2018).
Unfortunately, the dog training industry is not regulated and you do not need any formal qualifications to call yourself a dog trainer. This means anyone who believes themselves to be good with dogs can call themselves a trainer. Thus, it falls on the owners/handlers to do their research.
There are different qualifications to look out for, some of which are:
A degree level qualified trainer. These are trainers that have studied canine or animal training and behaviour at university level. The degrees can be FdSc, BSc, MSc and even PhD. If they have (Hons) next to the aforementioned letters this means they have completed a research project at the end of their degree.
NVQ level qualifications (the higher the better)
There are some organisations that can put you in touch with appropriately qualified trainers who use reward based force free methods. These organisations train trainers themselves. In addition, when people apply to be part of their organization, they have to answer questions, write essays, be observed or pass assessments.
Some well known organisations are:
The Pet Professional Guild (British Isles)
It is advantageous that the trainer you use has had some experience with assistance dog training however it is essential that they have plenty of experience with behaviour modification work.
Some trainers only offer basic training to puppies for example (including but not limited to), sit, stay, recall, drop it. These are great foundation behaviours however, an assistance dog will need to perform more detailed tasks and in some cases more complex behaviours. A trainer who has experience with behaviour modification and/or assistance dog work will be able to support and facilitate your dog’s progression towards the specific behaviours you need. In addition, should any behaviour issues arise, they will know how best to deal with them and what they mean for your dog’s advancement.
A good working relationship between you, your trainer and your dog is a must. You and the trainer need to be on the same page and trust one another. Talk to lots of different trainers and see who you get along best with. Although training an assistance dog is a serious thing – it should definitely be fun!
A trainer who is based close by would be a great help. Close proximity may make it easier for a trainer to be more readily/easily available for support. However, this is not always possible so keep an open mind.
What type of methods do you use?
The answer here should be reward based force free methods only
What qualifications do you have?
Do you have a specific qualification in terms of training an assistance dogs?
Here it is important to note that some of the higher level qualifications have assistance dog training as a module within the course.
How long have you been training dogs professionally?
Do you have relevant experience training assistance dogs?
If yes – please state examples
What equipment would you use?
All equipment should be force free – for example harnesses not collars and no loop leads or check/ choke chains
Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A. and Casey, R., 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3(5), pp.207-217.
Hiby, E., Rooney, N., Bradshaw, J. (2004). Dog training methods: Their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. Animal Welfare, 13, pp. 63-69.
Eskeland, G.E. & Tillung, R.H., Bakken, M. (2007). The importance of consistency in the training of dogs. The effect of punishment, rewards, rule structures and attitude on obedience and problem behaviors in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 2(3) p. 99
Makowska, I.J. (2018) Review of dog training methods: welfare, learning ability, and current standards. BC SPCA: Vancouver, Canada [online] Available at:< https://spca.bc.ca/wp-content/ uploads/dog-training-methods-review.pdf>
Ryan, T. (2011) The toolbox for building a great family dog. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Pub.