Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Owner Training?

Sometimes people ask me, "What are the qualities that make a person a good assistance dog owner trainer?"
I've been pondering this quite a bit, actually so thought I'd blog about it.

Disclaimer number one: This is my blog so these are my views. My ideas and observations may not align with another owner trainers views on the subject.
Disclaimer number two: I think the word "good" in the question stated above is too ambiguous. I prefer the term "effective." I am not in the business of deciding if anyone else besides myself is an "effective" trainer.

So what are the qualities, according to me, which make an effective owner trainer? I'll list the most important ones and then go into greater depth on each one.
• love of dog training
• willingness to learn
• patience
• a working knowledge of the applicable assistance dog laws in your country

• good orientation and mobility skills (this is guide dog specific)
• ability to keep accurate records
• ability to be honest with yourself
• a backbone

Love of Dog Training:
There is a very big difference between getting a dog from a program and starting from scratch with a dog who may not even know its name. A dog from a program will have learned obedience cues such as sit, down, stay, and loose-leash walking, or LLW. The program dog may have a few bad habits such as scrounging for food, or dog distraction, but your program dog should have most of its training completed.

People who have never handled a completely green dog have no idea what they're getting into. People who have worked only program dogs and who have had no other dog experience may be in for a very rude awakening if they attempt to owner train using the skill set taught by the programs. Programs don't really focus on teaching you to train dogs; they teach you how to communicate with your already trained dog. They may teach you how to train things like how to follow a person or how to target, but a green dog is just that, green.

If you are going to owner train, you have to want to be involved in the process. This could include everything from house-training to teaching the dog its name. You only get to do the public access stuff once the basic obedience, appropriate behaviors such as toilet training and food refusal are fluent.

Training a dog is hard, back-breaking work. It is hot, and sweaty in the summer, and cold and icy in the winter. Dogs don't care if you're tired or busy or that you "don't feel like it." If you want a dog to behave consistently, you need to train consistently.
Willingness to Learn:
Your dog will teach you things about yourself and the training process. Sometimes you aren't going to like the lessons. Owner training is very humbling. If your dog isn't responding or learning, then you need to look for a new way to teach what you want. You may need to go to obedience school with your dog. I have done this with all of my dogs. Sometimes I didn't even really like the trainer much, but I learned something about my dog or myself or about the training process every time I went. As an owner trainer, I'm wrong sometimes. Wrong about what my dog can handle, wrong in my approach, or wrong in my actions. You have to be able to learn from your mistakes and the first part of learning, is admitting that there is an issue.

Owner training is a long process. Be patient with your dog and yourself. Patience actually starts before you get a dog. I first learned about patience when looking for an assistance dog candidate. If you go with the first dog you like because you want a dog now! You may end up washing out that dog, and having to start again. Be patient, do research, slow is fast as my friend Karyn over at

<"Pawsitively-k9"> likes to say.

A Working Knowledge of the Applicable Assistance Dog Laws in Your Country:

When you owner train, you're on your own. When you run into access problems, there is no program to back you up, or to tell you what the laws are. Thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, this information is easily accessible, however. You will want to know these laws before you even make the final choice whether or not to owner train. In some contras your dog must come from a an official program, and people with disabilities do not have the right to brain owner trained dogs into places of business. Know your rights and responsibilities.

Good Orientation and Mobility Skills:
This is guide dog specific. If you don't know where the hell you are, or how to get to point B from point A, you are going to have a hard time training your own guide dog. All guide dog programs insist upon good orientation mobility skills before a person is accepted for training with a guide dog. They have good reasons for this. I think it is even more important as an owner trainer to be comfortable with your environment, and be able to navigate it without regular problems. This is not to say that you should be perfect. Heck, I get lost all the time. However I have good problem-solving skills and know how to get myself unlost, if that is even a word. I'm not talking about some "superblindy" who never makes an O&M mistake. I'm talking about a good set of travel skills, and the ability to stay calm and problem-solve. The ability to keep an accurate map in your head is a definite plus, but not a requirement.

Ability to Keep Accurate Records:
If you get into an access denial situation, you could appear in front of a judge who may want to know if your dog is really trained to do work, or perform tasks which mitigate your disability. If you have a program dog, then of course the program trainers will probably come down and testify on your behalf. They will also be able to show written records of your program dog's progress through the training.
If you are an owner trainer, you don't have anyone to do this for you. Keep a training log. Make videos of your dog working in various situations. Keep all documents such as certificates of completion from an obedience school. These certificates may not prove that your dog is an assistance dog, but it will show that you have been training your dog for X amount of time. Do not make the mistake of buying some kind of "certification" for your assistance dog from some schmuck on the internet. In the united States, there is no "certification" and any "certification" you may buy is only worth the paper its printed on. The company who sells you this "certification" won't come down and prove to the judge that your dog has been trained. So keep records!

Ability to be Honest With Yourself:
Sometimes a dog isn't suitable for assistance dog work and you may have to wash it out and start again. In the records you've kept, be honest. Lack of truthfulness with yourself will only come around to bite you in the butt in the end. It may take a while (see Patience, above) but be honest, and if a dog isn't fit for the work, do yourself and the entire service dog community a favor and don't take it into public. I'm not talking about a dog who has its off days, because no dog is perfect. I'm talking about a dog with a serious issue like reactivity or health problems.

A Backbone:
Owner training has become more widely accepted over these last five or so years. However, you are going to run into people who have issues with it. It could be anyone from your family, friends, other people with disabilities or assistance dog handlers. I've met some trainers from programs who have been pretty unpleasant. I've also dealt with all of the people stated above, who at one time or another had a problem with owner trainers and owner training, for a number of reasons. If this is something you want to do, if you've done your research and are determined to do it, you should be aware that you're probably going to encounter resistance, and sometimes outright hostility. If you can't handle that, then reconsider.

When you owner train your assistance dog you are the trainer, the advocate, the public relations, and the handler of your dog. You may have friends and fellow trainers who will advise and help you, but ultimately, you are responsible. If you can't handle that, reconsider.

I owner train because I love the process. I love dogs and dog training. I love the hours of work involved. When I stop loving it, then I will get a dog somewhere else.


  1. Very interesting post!
    I know I could never train my own dog. Not even sure if I have enough patience to train pet dogs, which is one of the things that's making me unsure of studying it further.

  2. It's interesting to me how lax dog guide schools are becoming with orientation skills. There were people in my class when I went to get Railey who couldn't even navigate their way around our dorm after the third week. In a way, it's kind of disheartening to me.
    Your blog is really informative. Keep it up.

  3. I'm hearing this more and more, as far as programs having lower standards for O&M skills. This is truly sad and I think could set a team up for hurtles which could otherwise be avoided. Thanks for reading! :)