Dog Trainers that Help OT's train service dogs: Lots of Questions

The Service and Therapy Dog forum is for all service and therapy dogs regardless of whether or not their status is legally defined by federal or state law, how they are trained, or whether or not they are "certified." Posts questioning or disputing a person's need for a service or therapy dog, the validity of a person's service or therapy dog, or the dog's ability to do the work of a service or therapy dog are not permitted in this forum. Please keep discussions fun, friendly, and helpful at all times.

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Sookie CGC

anything for a- tennis ball
Barked: Sun Sep 2, '12 5:33pm PST 
I'm a dog trainer and own my own training company. I have also spent the last several years volunteering with a service dog training school and running a local group of puppy raisers. I've done loads of research into training methods and how to teach various tasks and feel confident in my ability to teach most basic service dog tasks (dropped item retrieval, opening/closing doors, flipping switches etc. for mobility impaired; shaping alerts for other types of disabilities). I don't have any real experience with teaching complex responses (such as seizure response) or bracing tasks, so I wouldn't offer that until I knew what I was doing.

I'm in GA, where service dogs in training WITH PROGRAMS are given access rights, but not SDIT's being owner trained. So I would make use of the pet-friendly public locations to practice public access work.

So, on to the questions:

1) Is there any specific insurance coverage that a trainer who helps owners train their service dogs should carry?

I'm being told that I should stay "far far away" from service dog training because of the liability. But I think the person who is telling me this (who is very involved with program-training) is thinking more of someone who buys a dog, trains it, and sells it as a fully trained service dog, which is NOT what I'm wanting to do. I'm wanting to help a disabled owner, who happens to have a dog they think will work as their service dog, get their dog to a point where it can perform tasks and behave in public. Alternatively, I could help them screen potential service dog candidates and then help them train the dog. The person advising me against this says that "I would be responsible for that dog's behavior for the working life of the dog, and if the dog ever fails and as a result, the person is injured, I could be sued". Is this true?

2) Is there any special training program or "certification" that someone who offers to help train service dogs should have?

I know that there are no required training "certificates", but if you were looking for a trainer, what would you look for?

3) This is a tricky one. My normal training programs offer either "packages" of private lessons, pay-per-lesson private lessons, or packages of group training classes. I feel like because of the extensive amount of time that it takes to fully prepare a service dog team, none of these options are realistic (and could also become extremely expensive). While I want the work to be worth my time, I also want to provide reasonably priced training options to people who need service dogs. What is a reasonable time frame (I know it will vary, I'm looking for a starting point) and amount someone would spend on this type of training?

The training I'm looking at providing is me giving lessons to the disabled handler teaching them to teach the dog the tasks needed. Alternatively, for severely limited handlers, I can do board and train programs where I put foundation training and start exposures (pet friendly public places) and then they continue the training at home.

Any and all advice welcome.

Barked: Tue Sep 4, '12 8:51pm PST 
1.) I would think liability insurance would be the primary thing needed. cpt-training does service dog training and might be something to look into. Or if you've worked with an organization already you might ask them what they do as far as insurance goes.

I think that as far as helping someone pick a dog, most trainers who would assist in service dog training would want to help someone with this. I know I would appreciate it if someone helped me evaluate and pick a dog. It can be overwhelming with just the amount of research alone and the person getting the dog might not remember to ask the breeder everything. Just be clear and explain that the dog may wash out and that the behavior of the dog is reflexive in part on the breeder and the training.

2.) Looking at the laws, they never actually specify. I always took it to mean an owner trainer could just have help from a trainer. I'm guessing standard credentials?

3.)I don't know if I can help there. Experience and reputation often determine price so with something like this, I don't think people expect it to be inexpensive. I'm pretty sure anyone who's looked into it knows how much a program dog would cost.

I'm in GA too, so I'm interested to see how you do because I'm still in the process of figuring out my own service dog needs. I've found out so much lurking and asking around since I joined last year.

I forgot to ad that cpt-training dot com does some of what you're describing.

Edited by author Tue Sep 4, '12 8:59pm PST

Sookie CGC

anything for a- tennis ball
Barked: Wed Sep 5, '12 11:54am PST 
Thanks Spinny for the tips. I'll check into that website.

The program that I've been with for the past several years (and most programs, to my knowledge) are very against owner training. I've tried speaking with a few people about it and I get shot down pretty quickly and "strongly advised against" doing any service dog training work. The main reason for this, according to the people I've asked, is the liability. But I think that liability is different when you are helping someone train a dog they already have versus you selling (or providing) someone with a dog that you have trained.

This may be a better way to ask this:

Say I'm helping someone teach their service dog to, for example, go and hit an emergency button on cue (say, if a wheelchair bound person falls out of wheelchair). I've shown the owner how to train and shape the response, told the owner to practice the cue regularly to keep it fresh in the dog's mind, and at our last lesson the dog responds on cue, every time, quickly and accurately. A couple years later, person falls, gives dog cue, and dog fails to follow through.

2nd scenario is I'm helping someone develop a management program for a dog-aggressive dog (I don't do people aggression; I refer those out to a behaviorist). I don't ever tell or advertise that I can "fix" dog aggression, only help owners manage it. So we work and train and the dog gets a lot better. I leave our final lesson and the owner has a management program in place that they should stick to and continue to re-enforce and work on regularly. Then one day, the owner is out for a walk and the dog attacks another dog.

If I can do the training described in the second program and be fine, what is the difference between that and the first scenario? In both cases, I'm teaching the owner to train their dog to do something, and the owner is responsible for following up on that training and doing their homework. To me, both of these situations are essentially identical, and if I can do one, I should be able to do the other without any extra liability just because the handler in one scenario is disabled.

The program I volunteer with happens to be a non-profit, but I know that purchasing a fully trained service dog can be extremely expensive. Another reason I think the liability is so different is because this program focuses on GUIDE dogs. I think if you train a guide dog, then give it to a visually impaired person and the dog is supposed to not let the person walk out in front of a moving car, is supposed to take the person around potholes and objects that could injure them, and the dog fails to do those things, resulting in the handler getting seriously injured or killed, that's a different story.

Toto, CD, RN, CGC

We don't do- doodles!!!
Barked: Wed Sep 5, '12 12:40pm PST 
IMO, and in the eyes of my insurance agent, my liability insurance protects me when I am on my premises, training the handler with their dog and the handler trips and falls over the chair we are practicing walking around, or I am with them in a training situation in a public place and their dog attacks/bites and innocent bystander or ten thousand other scenarios.
Protecting me from being sued for some failed part of training is something else again and is not covered by "general" liability insurance and would be based on your written claims about what you are providing to that handler and whether or not you provided them, much as a guarantee when you buy an appliance or the like.
The minute you call yourself a "trainor" and take on a client, you in fact become responsible for anything and everything that can (and does) happen to that client while you are providing your service, in this case training. This is where you need liability insurance or else you stand the change of losing everything you own, including your home, etc.
I have known a private trainor who had a client's dog attack and permanently injure an innocent bystander while they were out training in public. That person sued the trainor who had NO insurance and they lost everything, including their home and life savings as a result of that suit. Because that trainor advertised themself as a "Professional", they were found liable for the actions of the clients in their training program.

The Boy Wonder
Barked: Wed Sep 5, '12 3:59pm PST 
I meant to get to this earlier sorry but here goes my feelings on it.

1. First things first talk to a lawyer, preferably one familiar with liability suits as well as disability law. A well drawn up contract will help solve a lot of the liability issues that aren't covered under a general liability policy. Have your clients read and sign it before you even start.

2. When I look for a trainer for myself or others one of the first things I look for is to see if they are a member in good standing with one of the national pet training registries, normally Association of Pet Dog Trainers, American Dog Trainers Network, or National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors. I then look for some one who trains for 'stuff' who offers more than basic obedience but also is familiar with sport training and possibly offers trick training for their clients. I Love to see someone who offers classes for Therapy work because this means they're used to getting their clients to a standard of behavior in public.

I then look at the trainer's own dogs... what do they do with them. Are they active in any sports, or in the community? Someone who does therapy work with their dogs is usually a big plus because the public access portion of that training as well as temperament evaluation is a good point for me. I Like seeing reviews from clients but I consider that to be extremely subjective because I've seen cult like followings for some downright rotten individuals and programs so word of mouth is only as useful as the people I'm getting that word from.

3. Packages are fine and you may just create packages that address specific parts of your program that are missing... a lot of basic obedience can be handled in regular packages, and if you offer classes for Therapy dogs that is a good starting place for public access work.

The First thing I would do, and I feel Very strongly about this, is require a full evaluation of the clients prospective SD to make sure the dog is even service dog material. 90% of the time clients will be wanting to use the family pet and I'd go out on a limb and say only 20-30% of those pets are even suited to service work. If you're comfortable you could include in your evaluation package helping the client find a perspective SD candidate if their own pet isn't up to the job, or if they don't have a candidate in mind. IF you can get to them before they Get a puppy you'll be in a better situation as far as success. Find a network of breeders and get familiar with local rescues and the shelter so you'll be received well and will have better luck if you decide to help them look. Even if you don't help them look knowing who is going to be a good judge of their dogs is going to go a long way towards success.

If you offer discounts for some of your regular classes and set up a program from evaluation, to socialization, to obedience (CGC test is a decent starting point before you get into pet friendly public access) Then move to task training. But the client will have to understand how to train, and a lot of the training can be done in the parameters of regular training.

As a 'graduation' I would either video a public access test, or use the ADI's form to fill it out. That evaluation is important for the clients records and is a good starting point for basic public access.

Keep in mind though that many of these people will be on disability and funds might be tight... most of the time when people start on the owner training band wagon it is because they don't have a lot of funds and are under the mistaken belief that it is cheaper to owner train. You may have to be firm on those prospective dogs that really aren't suited for the work, and please for the service dog community, and for the clients themselves don't go along with a clients wishes training a dog that is unsuited. Even if they Do go somewhere else to have the dog trained there will be a record of your evaluation.

Good luck, it's not an easy road but could be potentially rewarding.
Sookie CGC

anything for a- tennis ball
Barked: Fri Sep 7, '12 7:27am PST 
Thanks for the very well thought out responses!

Toto, I do have insurance coverage that covers me in those types of situations. I guess what my question is, is where does my liability end? I'm not sure (and am having a hard time finding the answer) of whether or not I need any extra insurance coverage to work with service dogs.

I have a contract that was drawn up by a lawyer, but it doesn't specifically include anything about service dogs. Otherwise, it extensively includes clauses that protect me from owner negligence and failure to comply with training advice.

I am a member of the APDT, offer their C.L.A.S.S. training program, as well as CGC and Therapy Prep classes. I do therapy work with my dogs, compete in Agility and Rally Obedience with my poodles and do field trials with my Labrador.

I actually require an evaluate for ALL clients prior to signing them up for training, mainly because I've discovered that people are generally really not that good at seeing (or describing) their dog's behavior. I prefer to see it for myself so that I can suggest a training route to take, or refer them out to a behaviorist if it's a really serious issue. I definitely will do in-depth evaluations of any potential service dogs candidates. I have several years of experience screening service dog candidates for the organization that I've worked with, so I'm confident in my ability to do these evaluations. I have had to tell a client that the dog she had would not work (extremely nervous, fearful standard poodle) and am currently helping her find a second poodle that will be a good candidate. I firmly believe that not only is it unfair to the service dog community, but it is extremely unfair to the dog to try and force a dog that isn't suited for it into service work.

The Boy Wonder
Barked: Fri Sep 7, '12 9:28am PST 
It's wonderful that you are taking a responsible approach to this. So few trainers are doing so lately, granted I also run into just as many shady programs for service dogs that make me both sad and distressed.

It sounds like you are on the right track but I do recommend that you talk to a lawyer about the revisions to your contract. That will give you good legal standing and protect you.

I would recommend from a purely personal view that you try to find a network of breeders that are breeding service type dogs. This will help you in the long run to help not only pet owners find good pets, but your SD clients find a prospect quickly and easily. This will also help the breeders to know that there is a trainer already involved with their dogs and might help you get good press from them as well.
Sookie CGC

anything for a- tennis ball
Barked: Fri Sep 7, '12 12:46pm PST 
Happy, thank you for all the good advice! I'm working on getting in touch with the lawyer who originally wrote up my contract. I purchased this business from another trainer, and it was her lawyer, but he has a lot of experience with dog-related businesses so I feel that would be the best route to go.

I have been working on developing relationships with breeders. I have extensive contacts within the standard poodle world, that being my personal breed of choice, and there are a few breeders near here that are breeding wonderful dogs. I am in the process of joining my local kennel club (it's quite a process, much more so than I was expecting) in order to connect with breeders of different breeds and branch out from poodles. I've also recently connected with a couple of other trainers in the area who have been introducing me to people. While not new to dogs, I'm relatively new to the area that I now live in. I've had a hard time connecting with other trainers (dog trainers can be so catty!) but by being persistent, open-minded, and positive I've finally made a few friends. I'm also working on a relationship with the vet school at the University here, which is a great contact to have.

So overall, I'm working on a lot of these things. I just want to make sure all of my bases are covered, because I definitely don't want to break the law, get myself or others in trouble, or cause more harm than good.

I am the Sock- Bandit!!!
Barked: Fri Sep 7, '12 1:08pm PST 
Ditto on talking to a lawyer. Absolutely hire one to go over your contract and check that you have the correct liability insurance coverage in place. A decent lawyer in your area can tell you where your liability might end. That differs so much by state you really need to hire a local legal rep. I know it's pricey, but as Toto said, it can mean the difference between losing everything and keeping your house and life savings.

My state is so full of sue happy that I wouldn't even think of doing this without having a good lawyer on retainer and an iron clad contract.
Sookie CGC

anything for a- tennis ball
Barked: Wed Sep 12, '12 9:45am PST 
Thanks everyone for all of the great responses.

On another note, has anyone used a trainer to help train their dog? If so, what things made the experience pleasant for you? Or, if things didn't go as planned or weren't pleasant, why was that?

I'm still trying to determine exactly how I should offer these services, how involved I should be, etc.
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