As a professional dog trainer who specializes in working with service dog owner-trainers, I am too familiar with the sad results when people entrust their precious time, money, or hope in the wrong trainer or service dog program. I’ve included some of these “Training Gone Wrong” examples (with names and details changed) shared with me by clients and colleagues.
This post addresses one key factor that individuals looking for a trainer should pay attention to: professional certification. As I’ve just earned my second trainer certification (CPDT-KA), I thought this was a good time to address WHY these certifications matter.
“Training Gone Wrong” Example: Pamela and Freddy
Pamela contacted me for help training her SDiT, Freddy. They had been through numerous group classes, most recently a service dog course, yet Freddy was engaging in a lot of out-of-control behavior that was getting worse. It included biting one of her friends, constantly demanding attention, and reactivity to strangers, vehicles (cars, bikes, wheelchairs), dogs. The group classes were overwhelming Freddy with people, dogs, and wheeled objects coming at him, scaring him and worsening his reactivity. Additionally, the punitive methods the trainers used damaged Freddy’s trust in Pamela, impeding her training progress. With several months of intensive training, we were able to modify Freddy’s behavior and get him back on track to becoming a service dog.
What’s In a Name?
When training a service dog, you’ll work with numerous “dog professionals”:
- Daycare or kennel workers
- Trainers – for group or private obedience training, temperament tests, task training, or as the authors/stars of books, videos, TV shows, or online posts about dog training
With the exception of veterinarians, none of these professions require any formal training, licensing, or certification. In the United States, dog training is an unregulated industry. While only someone with a doctorate in veterinary medicine can call themselves a vet, anyone can set up a business, organization, or Facebook page and call themselves a “trainer,” “breeder” or even a “service dog trainer” or “service dog organization”!
Given this, it is very important to be an informed consumer. So, how can you judge which professionals to work with? There are a lot of factors, but a good place to begin to sort the wheat from the chaff is with meaningful certifications.
Private Trainers: Assess Credentials
If anyone can work as a private dog trainer, regardless of method, outcomes, or experience, how do you know whom to trust? Start by focusing on trainers that have a certification from a recognized independent certifying body, or secondarily, that have a certification as a graduate of a respected, science-based trainer vocational program.
Definitions: A private trainer is someone you hire to help you train your dog. This is distinguish from a program, which is a business or organization that provides you with a trained dog. Generally, programs own the dogs they train, and whereas private trainers work with you to help you train your own dog.
While there may be good service dog trainers who don’t have these credentials as well as certified trainers who are not right to work with you and your dog, the benefit of working with a trainer with a meaningful certification is that you know they have, at minimum…
- A basic understanding of learning theory (the behavioral psychology term for understanding how animals learn), instruction skills, animal husbandry, and canine ethology (the study of canine behavior)
- Experience as a professional dog trainer working with clients
- A commitment to professional education and development
- A network or community of other skilled trainers to consult with
“Training Gone Wrong” Example: The Winter Family and Goldie
The Winters bought a puppy from a reputable breeder to train as an in-home service dog for their severely disabled son. They raised funds from family and friends to pay for her training classes at the local humane society. Goldie’s puppy classes went well, but after she started obedience classes, which used a choke chain, her behavior worsened, including excessive jumping and barking, destroying the kids’ possessions, and acting fearful and refusing to go on walks. At our consult, the Winters were considering relinquishing Goldie. I explained how to get Goldie’s behavior back on track by rewarding good behavior and preventing bad behavior. While relieved that there were sensible answers, the Winters had spent all of Goldie’s training budget on the group classes. They planned to try training on their own.
What Goes Into Earning a CPDT-KA or KPA-CTP?
Trainers without meaningful certifications may tell you, “I don’t need some letters after my name. What counts is experience.” But a person could have 20 years of experience that is not relevant to what you need your dog to do. They may have decades of experience successfully training dogs with leash corrections to do competition heeling, but that may not be useful to help you train your dog to do a medical alert when you’re asleep.
After 15 years of training my own service dogs, I had a depth of experience with owner-training a service dog that is very important in my work helping others to train their own assistance dogs. But to be able to be useful to virtually any service dog client, I needed to do a lot more.
In addition to continuing my education with books, seminars, and workshops on science-based dog training and behavior, I apprenticed with two skilled, certified, and humane trainers, which gave me the experience of training dozens of other dogs, and more importantly, instructing many people to train their dogs. I also learned how to modify behavior in dogs with behavior disorders and how to assess behavior and temperament. These are all different sets of skills, and they are all necessary to being an effective trainer for clients who are training their own psychiatric service dog or mobility assistance dog.
In 2015, I attended Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior. To be accepted into the program, applicants must already have dog training experience, professional dog handling experience and references. KPA is an intensive, six-month program that covers learning theory, cueing, stimulus control, instruction skills, and dog body language, among other training topics. Tuition is $5000, and in addition to many hours of reading and homework, there are four in-person two-day workshops, knowledge tests throughout the course, and three final exams in training fluent behavior in a dog, instructing a class, and knowledge. All of which must be passed at 90 percent or higher. Many people who take the course do not graduate. A graduate earns the title of Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner (KPA-CTP). To maintain KPA certification, trainers must earn continuing education credits.
This month, I also earned my certification from the Certification Council of Professional Dog Trainers. I now have the title of CPDT-KA, which means Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed. To take the exam, I had to sign a code of ethics, provide professional references and a log showing I had over 300 hours of professional training experience, pay over $400 in fees, and travel to a testing site on the specified day. This expense and effort makes it likely that people taking the exam are highly motivated, yet not everyone who takes the exam passes. To maintain certification, trainers must earn continuing education credits or retake the exam.
Independent Certifying Bodies
The minimum you should look for before you trust someone with your dog – or trust your time and money to someone to help you find a service dog candidate — is that they have basic credentials. How do you know if a trainer has these certifications? It’s not enough to just look for these letters after a trainer’s name. It is best to double-check by looking for their name in the certifying body’s or school’s directory of certificants. (Links are provided below.)
- CPDT (CPDT-KA or CPDT-KSA) or CBCC-KA – Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Certified Behavior Consultant Canine. (Knowledge Assessed or Knowledge and Skills Assessed.) Means a minimum of 300 hours of professional training, signed a code of ethics, been vouched for by another trainer or veterinarian, and passed a certifying exam that tests learning theory, instruction, canine husbandry and ethology. Requires CEUs (continuing education) to maintain certification. Find a CCPDT trainer.
- CDBC or CABC – Certified Dog Behavior Consultant or Certified Animal Behavior Consultant. Means a minimum of 3 years and 500 hours of professional behavior consultation with clients, 400 hours of coursework, signed a code of ethics, been vouched for by a client, colleague, and veterinarian, provided written case studies, and passed a certifying exam in assessment, behavioral science, species specific knowledge, consulting skills, general animal behavior, and the biological sciences as it pertains to animal behavior. Requires CEUs to maintain. Find a behavior consultant.
- CAAB or ACAAB – Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or Associate CAAB. More rigorous than the other two credentials. CAAB has a PhD in biological or psychological sciences with an emphasis in animal behavior, at least two years professional experience, research, clinical, and presentation experience in animal behavior, liability insurance, and more. ACCAB has the same requirements but has a Master’s Degree. Find a behaviorist.
Science-Based Professional Dog Trainer Vocational Program Graduates
If you can’t find a certified trainer, look for a trainer who has graduated from one of these programs:
- KPA-CTP – Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner. Has completed a course in dog training using marker-based positive reinforcement training and passed a written exam, a practical training exam, and an instructor exam with a score of 90% or higher on every exam. Requires CEUs to maintain. Find a KPACTP.
- CTC – Certificate in Training and Counseling. Has graduated from the Academy for Dog Trainers and passed written and practical dog training tests including animal learning and cognition, applied behavior analysis, ethology, class curricula, dog body language, and diverse forms of reinforcement. Find a CTC.
“Training Gone Wrong” Example: Theresa and Butterfly
Theresa contacted me to find out what would be involved in having her dog, Butterfly, trained as a service dog or emotional support animal. At the consult, Theresa told me that her groomer had told her to use a certain website to get Butterfly certified as a service dog. Theresa, who is on SSI, followed the groomer’s instructions and paid $150 to “register” Butterfly. She received an official-looking certificate with a registration number for Butterfly and a vest that says “Service Dog” on it. I explained to Theresa that since there is no such thing as federal certification or registration of service dogs (nor state certification in her state of Mass.), those were worthless. She could use the vest and patches once her dog was trained. (Though she could have gotten those much less expensively elsewhere.)
What about other badges, titles, or associations?
It depends. There are lots of memberships or designations you can claim just by sending in annual dues. Many of these are terrific organizations — IAADP, APDT, NADOI — but you do not need any credentials to be a member. A badge on a trainer’s or organization’s website that says they belong to one of these organizations indicates an interest in continuing education and professionalism, but it doesn’t indicate any degree of skill or knowledge.
There are also organizations or designations that are not that meaningful. They could be an organization someone created yesterday and now says they are the chair of the board. I could tell you that I’m a member of the “International Society of Dog Behavior Professionals,” which sounds impressive but doesn’t exist. I just made the name up. This is why I recommend looking for specific, meaningful credentials.
The APDT provides a basic explanation of trainer credentials. This article on How to Choose a Dog Trainer by 4 Paws University also discusses this (and other) issues.
Service Dog Professional Red Flags
Suppose you have now found a trainer with the certifications or schooling suggested above. Even among credentialed trainers, there are red flags that should cause you to reconsider – or at least gather more information on – doing service-dog related work in these situations:
- Look at the dogs in the program’s or trainer’s videos and pictures. Are they wearing choke chains or prong collars? Does the trainer sell e-collars or recommend “stimulation” training? Does the trainer call himself “balanced” or offer “balance” training, talk about training as primarily being an issue of leadership, asserting control or dominance? These are trainers to avoid.
- If a trainer says about a dog you’re considering, “There’s a behavior problem (reactivity, aggression, anxiety, fearfulness, attacking cats, etc.) but we can fix it with training.” It’s better not to start service dog training with a behavior modification project.
- Is the trainer open with you and with the others you’re working with about their credentials and experience? Do they share information and details on their methods of training? Are they eager to send you, your vet, or another trainer their recommendations, conclusions, or notes about your dog or a dog they’re assessing or training for you? If they act secretive or say they have “a unique method” that they can’t share, they may have something to hide.
- Is the trainer working as a trainer, or working in another profession and doing some training on the side? A lot of great people work as rescue volunteers or coordinators, groomers, vet techs, etc., which gives them valuable dog knowledge. It does not necessarily give them the skills and knowledge of dog training and behavior that you need in a trainer.
- Guarantees or offers of unlimited training. Odd as it may seem, these can both be red flags, and they are often offered by the same trainers. Private trainers who offer training or behavioral guarantees are a red flag, as this is considered unethical by reputable certifying bodies and trainer’s associations. This trainer typically offers something like, “Pay $X and we guarantee your dog will be trained in Y and Z behaviors. Bring your dog to us for as many years or sessions as he needs, guaranteed!” This is a red flag because behavior is unpredictable, individual, and a combination of multiple factors, including both human and dog behavior and circumstances. Note: This differs from a program that offers a warranty on their trained dogs. A large program that breeds and trains hundreds of dogs can legitimately promise that if the dog they match you with does not work out, they can provide you with another dog. On the other hand, a “program” that promises to train your pet as a service dog for a flat fee should be asked about what happens if the dog does not succeed: Will they provide a refund? Are there assessments to let you know whether your dog is meeting benchmarks to succeed on schedule? At what point do they recommend career-changing (“washing out” a dog)?
- How much experience do they have with service dog training or with disability? Ask them for details of disabilities of past clients or types of training you’re interested in. An ethical trainer will be honest when asked about their areas of expertise and level of experience in a specific aspect of training.It’s fine to hire a credentialed positive trainer who doesn’t know about service dogs or disabilities to teach your dog to sit, stay, or come. But they are probably not the best source of information on choosing the right dog, on how to train the dog to work best for your disability (for example, if you want a dog to offer balance support, you may not want an automatic “sit” when you come to a stop) or on how to train assistance skills.If you are working with a pet dog trainer you already know and like, it is often a terrific plan to work primarily with this trainer for most of your ongoing trainer, but to hire a service dog trainer to set up your training plan and to consult periodically on disability-related training issues.
“Training Gone Wrong” Example: Hennie and Bug
Hennie bought Bug as a puppy from a breeder website that markets its dogs as future service dogs. The breeder indicated that Bug had been temperament tested as an appropriate candidate to become a SDiT. Hennie also paid several thousand dollars for four months of skilled training for Bug before she arrived home. At six months of age, Bug arrived, already crate-trained and house-trained. However, Bug turned out to be a skittish and fearful puppy who was reactive to strangers, making it unlikely she would be able to work in public and requiring a lot of behavior modification just to be a stable pet. Bug also didn’t recognize basic obedience cues (sit, down, wait, leave it, etc.) that were supposed to have already been trained.
Evaluating Service Dog Programs and Organizations
Many of the same types of questions and considerations with private trainers can be applied to organizations and programs. By “program or organization,” I mean a business (whether nonprofit or for-profit) that provides fully trained service dogs to people who apply. If a program provides a partially trained dog, you might need to assess it by combining criteria for private trainers and programs.
- Is the program a member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI)? Programs that are members of ADI are much more likely to be reputable and to do what they say they do.
- Service Dog Central provides some excellent information on evaluating service dog programs and trainers. If you are looking to work with a program, I highly recommend starting with these articles:
- Tips on Selecting a Program to Provide a Trained Service Dog
- Red Flags (programs to avoid)
- How to choose your service or assistance dog program
Additional Information on Evaluating Programs
Once you’ve read the articles above, here are additional issues to consider:
- Do staff trainers have the certifications or schooling outlined in this post? If staff trainers don’t have these credentials, that may be fine if they’re working with direct supervision from a head trainer with strong credentials. If the head trainer’s resume is not on the program website, ask for written material on the head trainer’s background in animal training and behavior.
- What conditions do the dogs live in? Ask to visit the facility and watch the training and see where the dogs are kenneled. Is the living area clean? Are the dogs relaxed? Are there toys and beds? During training, are humane methods used? Punitive methods such as choke chains and prong collars cause stress that is more likely to lead a shorter working life due to the negative impact of stress on a dog’s health.
- Ask to speak to a few of their graduates who have dogs from them. Get names and phone numbers. Speak to graduates about their experience with their dog. Ask to meet the people and dogs so you can assess the dog’s level of training. If they are not in your area, ask them to send you some video of the handler and dog working together. A trained service dog does not act like a pet dog. It is focused on its handler, even around distractions.
- If the program is new and cannot refer you to graduates, ask the program contact person what skills they train the dogs to do and whether they’ve trained any dogs to do them yet. Pick one of these skills and ask them to take a short video in the next couple of days and email it to you of one of their trainers and dogs performing this skill five times in a row. The dog should be successful 80% of the time (four out of five times).
“Training Gone Wrong” Example: Steve and Mystery Service Dog Program
Steve applied to a service dog program in his area and met with their trainer. The trainer did not provide a contract, discuss training methodology, or return calls and emails promptly, but did show him pictures and the name of the dog he’d receive and the cost. Steve began fundraising, but it was slow going. On the day he was to meet his new service-dog-in-training, the program told him the dog was sick. Later, he learned the dog had been matched with someone else. When he asked some follow-up questions, he was told the trainers were too busy to answer. Later, when Steve did raise significant funds, the program got back in touch and offered him a puppy to train. The negative experiences with this program and others like it caused Steve a lot of stress and made him wonder if he could trust any trainer.
Program Website Red Flags
These issues are not necessarily deal breakers, but they warrant caution, careful attention and research:
- If there are there lots of pictures of people and service dogs, look at the gear on the service dogs. If the dogs’ vests and packs are from multiple different organizations (none of which bear the name or logo of the program you’re looking at), this is a red flag. First, it’s likely copyright infringement, which suggests a willingness to cut corners and poor ethics. Secondly, it tells you nothing about the dogs that are actually in the program.
- The website should give the full names (first and last) of the people who are involved in training the dogs, as well as information on their backgrounds and credentials. If the organization is a nonprofit, there should be a board of directors listed. If the program is a for-profit business, that should be clear, too.
- Trainers or organizations with websites that are incomplete or under construction (or that only have a Facebook page) may be new or inexperienced, or may not be fully committed to the work of service dog training. This is an important consideration. Everyone has to start somewhere, but people that have been training service dogs professionally for twenty years will have a deeper depth of experience than people who are just starting out.
- Organizations or websites that rail against breeding dogs for service work or that say that they get all their dogs from shelters are often suspect. While there are some excellent and ethical programs that train mostly or exclusively rescue or shelter dogs, most reputable programs rely on purpose-bred dogs or a mix of purpose-bred dogs, dogs donated by breeders, and rescue dogs or client pets. Reputable programs that train rescue dogs are upfront about the rigorous testing required and the high number of dogs that do not pass assessments.
- Information about costs, fees, and waitlists should appear somewhere on the website. If you need to call to find out basic information on fees and timetables, that is often a red flag.
Be an Informed Consumer
It may feel awkward and intimidating to ask someone lots of questions, including about their background, credentials, and experience. And if you really want their help to get a service dog, you may worry about alienating them. But if they respond badly to reasonable questions, that is a good piece of information for you. Do you want to work with someone who has something to hide?
You need all the relevant information to make an informed decision for you and your dog. Be polite but persistent. A professional who is honest about their limitations may be a better bet than someone who bristles at being questioned. The former is more likely to research and consult with colleagues if she is stumped. The latter may put reputation above your best interests.
The relationships you have with a service dog trainer, program, or other professional is often long-term and has a profound impact on your life. Choose with care. You and your dog deserve it.