There are lots of great trainers out there, but very few with experience training assistance dogs. While they may be great at training pet dogs, or even competition obedience or agility champions, the skill set required for an assistance dog is quite unique.
Most dog schools train with the goal or guidelines of competition obedience in mind. Obedience dogs are only asked to focus and preform for a maximum of 30 minutes inside a controlled environment such as the competition ring. Let’s take one of the most foundation behaviours – heeling. In a perfect obedience heel the dog will have his shoulder glued to your leg and be maintaining eye contact with you for the entire drill. It looks great in the ring and will score you many points with the judges, however an assistance dog is required to heel for hours on end if the handler is having a busy day, and they need to be aware of their surroundings. Most dogs are at just the right height to be hit in the head with a shopping bag of a passer-by who didn’t notice them or walked too close. An obedience trained dog would not see that coming.
Another commonly taught skill in most dog schools is the automatic sit. When the handler halts, the dog automatically sits. This is fine in a 30-minute drill, or a pet going for their daily walk, but could you imagine how many times you stop and start during your day? Expecting an assistance dog to do an automatic sit is tedious for both handler and dog. These are just some of the ways in which basic skills taught to both obedience dogs and assistance dogs differ.
This is an example of an obedience trial.
Moving on to task work, most pet dog trainers have had no experience in teaching complex skills, and obedience skills do not extend beyond a retrieve. It is important you are working with a trainer with assistance dog experience to make sure the task is both safe for the dog and suitable for the handler. Assistance dog trainers are used to having to work outside the box because clients with disabilities come with unique challenges that need to be factored in the training process.
If a trainer has not had assistance dog experience, they are very likely not to have any knowledge about the requirements of a dog doing public access. Beyond the obvious things such as not being disruptive etc, there is also an unspoken code of etiquette assistance dog handlers follow when working their dogs in public places. Part of an assistance dog trainer’s role is to teach the clients their rights and responsibilities and help with advocacy should you encounter an access issue.
As the old saying goes, there are horses for courses, at the end of the day it is better to be working with a trainer then no trainer at all, but you will find the process easier and quicker working with a trainer who understands the unique skill set that an assistance dog requires.