Assistance Dogs: Private vs. Program Training

By Kristin Hartness, Canines for Disabled Kids

More and more often I meet people who tell me they self-trained or privately trained their service dog.  The answers I get when I ask why they chose that route vary from thoughtful and well planned choices to vague and mumbled avoided responses. Sometimes I meet people who think they have a finished service dog in their personal pet but actually have a dog in training or don't have a service dog at all.

Kristin Hartness on Assistance Dogs

Why is this important to me? I have been a service dog user for over 14 years and work to educate the public about service dogs and the laws which allow them to exist. My service dogs have been program trained and self / private trained. My goal is never to make the choice of what is best for the individual. It is to be sure the individual has evaluated all their options, selecting the best one for their needs and has a legal service dog under the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After you have made the choice to obtain a service dog you must decide where to get your dog from. There are 3 options:

  • a 501c3 nonprofit service dog training program
  • a for-profit service dog training program
  • private or self-training

Now let's consider these options:

Program Training for Your Service Dog

Program training will either be a non-profit or a for profit program. Looking at the similarities show us that a quality service dog can come from both and that the overall process used to produce a service dog is often the same regardless of the financial difference of for profit vs. nonprofit.

Training programs reduce the personal risk, financial and emotional, for the client and are an experienced way to get a well-trained, legal service dog. The program raises and trains the puppy, in most cases without the client's involvement, and only introduces the client to the finished dog which has passed its training and is able to be a functional service dog both in trained skill(s) and appropriate public behavior.

Kristin Hartness and training canines

This system means the client is not getting emotionally attached to a dog that has not passed the training.  At least 50% of the dogs which try to be service dogs will fail. The training program should be absorbing that into their overall costs and handling the rehoming of those animals. Training programs also have the ability to shift a dog from one targeted work area, for example work with a child in the autism spectrum, to another, such as a hearing dog, based on the dog's strengths and preferences shown by the dog. 

Choosing to work with a training program can also reduce your wait time. Programs which are always training dogs and matching finished dogs to clients on their wait list can often match client and dog faster than programs which only bring in dogs to train as they accept clients and faster than self /private training.

There are a lot of variables that go in the individual wait time. The more requirements the client has, the longer the wait period may be. Requiring things like a specific breed, weight, coat length will make it harder for the training program to find the perfect match. Most programs will work to the needs of the client, but the client must understand the trade off in time. One family I worked with insisted the dog be able to be vacuumed daily. While the training program eventually found a dog that could be vacuumed and do the actual trained skills needed to mitigate the individual's disability, the client had waited 4 years.  It was a wait the client was willing to take.

Choosing to work with a training program can save the client on costs. The client should only be charged the fees for the finished service dog, the program should set the fees—inclusive or itemized—out clearly during the interview period. The client is obtaining a finished service dog with training on how to use the skills trained and how to care properly for the dog and its equipment. The client is not charged for the attempts that did not work out.

Most importantly, the majority of training programs place only those dogs which have completely finished training with clients and spend an average of two weeks teaching the team to work together. The team also has access to client support with the staff of the program and a network of other clients from the same program.

Always read the contract before you sign it. Be sure you are comfortable with the terms. Be sure you understand the terms. Be sure you are getting what you contract for.

Pros and Cons of Non-profit vs For-Profit Program Training

Nonprofit training program, registered 501c3 organizations, are programs which offer the most options for fundraising the training costs associated with the service dog. The majority of service dog training programs are nonprofit programs. They offer the client the ability to raise a portion of the actual training costs through a variety of ways. Donations can be made on behalf of the client directly to the training program. This results in the client getting credit for raising the money and the donor gets tax credit. 

Some downsides to working with these programs include long wait times: the average wait time is currently 2 years but can be longer or shorter depending on the client's needs and the dogs which pass the training. Programs have a variety of restrictions about who they can train for and what the client can do with the dog after completing training—who owns the dog, the client or the program? What is their age requirement for a client? Do you live in the geographic area they serve? Are you comfortable with all the requirements of their contract?

Kristin Hartness on Assistance Dogs

For-profit training programs also have some down sides to consider. The entire training cost is the responsibility of the client, a number which may vary based on what the client needs, and which will be more difficult to raise funds for than fundraising for a nonprofit program. Some opportunities, such as scholarships, fundraisers through chain restaurants, and donations by local civic groups may not be able to go to for-profit programs removing them as funding sources for a client. Websites such as GoFundMe.com and others charge a fee for the use of their services. This fee can significantly reduce the amount which the client receives or is paid to the training program. If the client receives these funds directly, it is income and can be taxed as such, further reducing the amount available to put towards training costs. 

Self or Private Training for Your Service Dog: What If Your Dog Fails?

Self or Private training is the option with large benefits and large risks. Ask yourself why do you want to self/private train? Are there good training programs which already train the skill set you need and cover your geographic area? If so, why don't you want to work with them? Is what you want really a trained skill that is directly related to your disability as required by law? Is your current pet showing potential, such as acting strange before you have a seizure? Do you insist on a breed which is not very successful in the industry, such as a bully breed or arctic breed? If so, why? What resources do you have to help with training, evaluating, financial costs and emotional investments?

Choosing to take this route means you have placed all your eggs in one basket.

You must find a dog, a puppy—between 8 weeks old and less than 2 years is preferred—that shows potential for the right personality to work in a public people world (vs. a pet in your home) and the ability to learn and consistently perform the needed trained skills for your disability.

You must raise the pup, exposing it to everything possible—trains, buses, loud noises, crazy kids, basketball games, grocery stores, restaurants, movies, live concerts and much more. During the training period, you need to plan to take your pup to activities you might never have thought to attend. Your pup needs to learn to accept all the environments you might take it to and anything that it might encounter such as people with crazy outfits, baseball hats, strange voices, different races, different sizes and ages.

You must teach it the trained skill or skills that it will need to do to help mitigate your disability. 

Remember emotional support and companionship are not service dog skills. 

Kristin Hartness on Assistance Dogs

You must evaluate its progress without allowing your emotional attachment to affect your evaluation. No aggression. No protection. Is it afraid of small children? Does it not want to do the skill you need? How many people can help you with training? Is it comfortable with strangers around? Is it comfortable with strangers touching you? You will need many people to help with the exposures to environments, evaluations away from you, evaluating you and the dog together, helping to teach a skill and more.

Can you afford the financial investment? All the costs are your responsibility. You must purchase the dog or pay the rescue fees, cover all medical expenses, pay for all the food, toys, treats and trainers fees. 

Can you afford the emotional investment? This comes down to can you walk away from the dog if it fails.  I always tell people not to start self or private training unless you have a solid "Plan B" in place.  By this I mean before you get the dog you need to know what you will do if the dog fails. Will you keep it as a pet?  Will you re-home it? Are you willing to invest two years and start over at square one if it fails?

All dogs run the risk of failing. Reasons for failing include health, fear, aggression, protection or bad public behavior (jumping on their person, barking without instruction from their partner).

Know the Law!

No matter where you get your service dog, understand the law. Here are some key points to remember:

  • You can't be required to provide paperwork or certification on your dog but you must be able to answer these two questions which anyone can ask you: Is the dog required because of your disability and what is the trained skill or tasks which the dog has that are directly related to your disability? Emotional support and comfort are not service dog skills or task as defined by law.
  • The skills or tasks your dog does must be trained. If your dog is showing signs of alerting you to oncoming seizures, you must train an appropriate way for the dog to alert you. Barking in public and jumping on you are examples of bad behavior and should not be allowed. Nudging your hand or leg to alert you are examples of good trained behaviors.
  • The dog must be leashed, harnessed or tethered to you unless you can prove that prevents the dog from doing its task. If this can be proved, the dog must be under your vocal control and is off leash only for the time it takes to do the task. Play time is not a task or skill and should only happen in places where pets are allowed to play.
  • No aggression or protection. If your Boston Terrier alerts to your seizures but barks at other dogs, people, cats or shadows, it cannot be in public as your service dog. If your dog collects all its toys at home and does not want others to touch them, if your dog refused to give up the couch and growls at you or others, these are some signs of aggression or protection.
  • Check out your trainer or training program. Be sure they have a good understanding of what makes a legal trained skill under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) resulting in a well-trained therapy or companion dog rather than a legal service dog.
  • When self/private training, select a breed which has a high chance of success—don't look for a needle in a hay stack.

Be Informed, Then Be Rewarded

Service dogs make a huge difference in the lives of many people. They bring a greater independence, the ability to do more on your own rather than wait for family, friends or paid help to do things for you.

Service dogs are defined by federal law. Both the users of these special animals and the communities they live and work in have responsibilities and should be held accountable.

Take your time, consider all the options available to you, select the best option for you and invest in this wonderful, long term tool. You will gain more than you knew you lost.

About the author:

An accomplished public speaker, Kristin speaks nationally and internationally on the value of service dogs in the lives of people living with a variety of disabilities and the laws which govern them. She works with communities, schools and businesses to help them welcome service dog teams through their actions and policies.  A service dog user herself, Kristin knows firsthand the independence a service dog brings to an individual. Kristin has lived with Multiple Sclerosis since she was 16 years old, when symptoms first appeared. Kristin's newest partner, Asha, a smooth coat collie, continues to bring independence to Kristin's active life.  

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