The concept of owner training a service dog was new to me, up until about a year ago. Society is still catching up with the notion that service dogs play a valuable role in the lives of the disabled, so knowledge of alternative routes of training or acquiring service dogs is not widespread.
Opinions about owner training service dogs vary significantly. Some people who hear about it for the first time are both fascinated and impressed, while others think it’s a responsibility best left to the “experts”(i.e. programs like Guide Dogs for the Blind). There’s no question that I’m in full support of owner training. However, I’m a firm subscriber to the “to each his own” school of thought. Even more than I support owner training, I believe that the right to choose between owner training, private training or program training is the most important issue.
It saddens me that the most intense division is among service dog handlers themselves. While there are plenty service dog handlers who share the viewpoint that different methods are better for some handlers than others, some are just as biased against the “opposing” group as some people are against the use of service dogs in itself. There are some owner trainers who have an elitist air about them because they may think that there is more honor in training your own dog than having someone else train him. Alternatively, there are some handlers of program trained dogs who find it reckless or unrealistic for disabled people to train their own dog. My firm position is that neither is the case.
Realistically, I can only look at the issue from one perspective, as an owner trainer. I’m also new to the game so my viewpoints are probably more representative of the non-service dog-user than of a seasoned service dog handler or service dog trainer.
I’ve experienced, what I interpret to be, grave hypocrisy, from some other service dog handlers. Maybe I’m just naive, but I expected a lot more support and comradery than I’ve encountered upon disclosing my status as an owner trainer. Maybe it’s because these interactions have taken place online? Failure to remember that there’s a human being at the other end of internet communication is no new phenomenon, so it’s possible. Regardless, I was surprised to receive such harsh judgments from other SD handlers. Recurring responses are either of disbelief that a visually impaired person can train a guide dog or that I must not be blind enough to need a service dog. Either way, these are mindsets that one would expect from someone who has no experience with SD’s; not from someone who should have heightened sensitivity to the issue. Oh well, c’est la vie.
On the other hand, I have no problem with members of the non-service dog-using general public who are taken aback by the concept of owner training. It’s a subject matter that one shouldn’t expect everyone to be well versed in.
My grandfather asked me a question a couple weeks ago that was interestingly phrased. He asked, “Is it considered good etiquette to train your own dog?” This represents a perspective from which I never would have thought to approach this subject. My answer was something along the lines of, “Of course! It’s legal to do so and although it’s not common knowledge, it’s not uncommonly done. When you see a service dog out and about, there’s no way to know whether he was owner trained or not.”
So…not only is it legal and acceptable to train your own service dog; it’s also good etiquette!
There’s a huge difference between owner training a service dog and putting a vest that says “Service Dog”on your pet dog so you can take him out in public. Trying to pass a pet dog off as a service dog is neither acceptable nor legal. There are people who do this, however, and owner trainers should never be associated with this pathetic minority. Those who try this will get their reality check sooner or later. At the very least, they’ll realize what an unbearable inconvenience it is to be accompanied by a dog who is barely trained in basic obedience when they can’t get anything done because the dog is out of control. If Karma has any say in the matter, it will be clear that the dog is not a service dog and the owner will be prosecuted for their crime.
Owner trainers tend to be more sensitive to the scrutiny placed on service dogs than handlers of program trained dogs. There’s no denying that when presented with a public access challenge (meaning a business owner illegally prohibits access to the business to a service dog team), the handler of a program trained dog will have an easier time asserting their rights than an owner trainer. Business owners, the general public and, unfortunately, even law enforcement are more likely to give validation to a program trained service dog than an owner trained service dog. Because of this, many owner trainers put more substantial emphasis on their dogs’ flawless behavior in public than may be necessary.
While the legal definition of a service dog doesn’t specify a particular level of training, owner trainers hold themselves accountable for training their dogs to the standards one would expect from a program trained dog.
There are two ways many owner trainers evaluate a dog’s status as a service dog. The first is by assessing the dog’s behavior in public places, under normal circumstances. While the law dictates that service dogs may not act aggressively, destructively or in a disturbing manner that significantly alters the nature of a business, there are no legally mandated minimum standards of behavior in public.
However, without certain standards, it is possible to live in a vacuum. That being said, many people choose to administer a public access test (PAT). There is no universally recognized public access test, but many organizations use their own and most are very similar. If a dog is tested by a particular organization and passes, he may be considered certified by that particular organization. Service dogs are not legally required to be certified by any organization. Administering the PAT is personal choice and may simply act as a means to gauge the dog’s level of training. PAT’s are geared to evaluate the dog’s behavior under normal circumstances and a dog who passes is unlikely to manifest behaviors that could get him legally restricted from a public place.
The second, and most important factor in determining a dog’s status as a service dog is task training. This is the only factor considered in regard to the legal definition of a service animal. A service dog must perform a task that mitigates his handler’s disability in a significant manner. There is no particular set of tasks or method of performing the tasks, as long as they are specific to the handler’s disability. No task training certification is legally required for the dog to be considered a service dog.
Going back to what I said earlier: There is a huge difference between owner training and putting a service dog vest on a pet dog. Owner training is not an endeavor to jump into impulsively. The level of knowledge and time commitment necessary to successfully train a service dog is inconceivable until you actually do it.
The decision whether or not to owner train needs to be left in the hands of the most important person in the equation: the owner. Just as program trained dogs are an invaluable asset to some people with disabilities, the benefits of owner training to those who are willing and capable are insurmountable.
November 4, 2009:
It was brought to my attention, in a response to this article, that I made the implication that public access training is necessary for a dog to legally be considered a service dog. This is not the case.
Public access training is left entirely to the discretion of the owner trainer. With the exceptions of dangerous, destructive and disturbing behavior, standards of public behavior are subjective and it is not necessary for the dog to pass a public access test.
As I discuss in a separate article, service dogs are held to a high standard, both by their handlers and by the general public. The single, most important role a service dog plays in the life of his handler, is to mitigate a disability. Many service dogs help their handlers the most away from home. This inherently means that the dog must perform reliably in a variety of environments. This is why the majority of service dog handlers put almost as much emphasis on training the dog to work in a wide range of settings, under differing circumstances.
It’s important to realize that each service dog team is different and one of the best parts of owner training is customizing the dog’s skills to meet the individual’s specific needs. Not every person will handle her dog in the same manner as others with a similar disability. While there are certain skills that one may think logically come with the territory of performing service work, not every dog needs to perform in the same manner as another.
Thanks to Ayana for bringing the need for clarification to my attention. I encourage anyone who finds an achilles’ heel in one of my entries to point it out. I’d rather by corrected than others be misinformed!