Service Dog Trainer

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Service dog trainers condition dogs to perform a variety of specialized behaviors that assist individuals who face physical challenges.

Duties

Service dog trainers are responsible for teaching dogs to perform behaviors that assist disabled individuals with daily tasks.  The required behaviors can vary widely based on the type of disability for which they will be providing assistance.

As is the case for all canine career professionals, service dog trainers must possess the requisite skill set for working with dogs.

  These traits include excellent communication skills, patience, a strong background in canine behavior, and a solid grasp of obedience training techniques.  They must also take care to ensure that all dogs are properly cared for while under their supervision and are only trained using humane methods.

Service dog trainers must be comfortable working with both people and dogs.  They are responsible for selecting dogs for the training program, evaluating their temperament and suitability, and tracking their progress as they complete training exercises.  They must also screen applicants to be sure that they pair each individual with the correct dog. 

After making the match, they must help the client and dog establish a partnership so that they can work together to achieve a variety of goals.  This can involve travel to provide in-home training while the client and dog establish their bond for the first few weeks.

  They may also offer additional lessons several months after placement to address any issues that have arisen, or to teach the dog additional desired behaviors.

Career Options

Service dog trainers can specialize in training dogs to assist with a variety of challenges including visual or auditory impairments, physical handicaps, or conditions like Autism.

  Many service dog trainers focus on training dogs for just one specific disability.  Service dog trainers can readily transfer their skills to other career paths such as dog trainer or animal behaviorist.

Education & Training

Many individuals begin their journey to this specialty career by becoming dog trainers before transitioning into the service dog industry.  This is frequently achieved through a combination of professional dog trainer certification programs and gaining extensive practical experience.  Many candidates also have a background in dog showing, grooming, or an animal health field.

There are also certification programs devoted specifically to service dog training.  The Assistance Dog International (ADI) Instructor Certification is one of the most respected certification programs for service dog trainers.  The initial comprehensive testing fee is $50.  The certification must be renewed every two years by submitting proof of at least 16 continuing education hours and paying a $25 renewal fee.

Many service dog organizations offer two to three year apprentice programs for aspiring trainers.  For example, Guide Dogs of America offers a 3 year apprentice program through its member organizations.

  Guide dog instructors in a few states (such as California) must pass a mandatory test to become licensed after completing their apprenticeships.

Salary

According to Guide Dogs of America, licensed guide dog trainers have starting salaries comparable to those earned by school teachers.  A recent position posted by Dogs for the Deaf quoted starting salary in the range of $16 to $21 per hour, plus a full benefits package and signing bonus.  The number of paying service dog positions, however, is fairy small.

While salary data specifically for dog trainers is not readily available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are several websites that provide dog trainer salary information.

 PayScale.com cites an average earning rate for dog trainers around $44,000 per year. SimplyHired.com quotes an average dog trainer salary of $38,000 per year.  These numbers are pretty much in line with the rates quoted by Dogs for the Deaf and Guide Dogs of America.

There are also many unpaid service dog volunteer positions, as well as opportunities to raise puppies to the training age (1 to 2 years old, depending on the specific requirements of the program).

Career Outlook

Many positions in the service dog field are volunteer opportunities, and salaried positions have many more applicants than there are spaces available.  This is a canine career path that attracts a significant amount of interest, but paid opportunities are quite limited.  Candidates with extensive experience and professional certifications will enjoy the best job prospects in this field.