Ep. 11: No Dabbling in Service Dogs!

Mar 23, 2020

When it comes to service dogs (not therapy dogs, not emotional support dogs, SERVICE DOGS), there needs to be an extra layer of attention paid to the professional on the other end of the leash. Service dogs allow for their handlers to have an improved and more independent life. Therefore, the professional dog trainers who are training and placing these dogs MUST be of the highest caliber.


Dianna L. Santos

Laura Demaio Roy


Dianna L. Santos (00:00):
Welcome to the It is Time to Train Your Dog Podcast. In this podcast, we talk about all things dog training that could be doing training for your puppy, training for your dog, providing some real life skills, preparing for the CGC and more. In addition to that, we also do a behind the scenes look of what your instructor may be going through and try to provide resources for dog training instructors as well. In this episode, we're going to be speaking with Laura Demaio Roy and she is a service dog trainer. And in this conversation we're going to be talking about from the trainer's perspective what we all need to think about as professionals. If we were to think about taking on service dog training as one of our services. Before we start diving into the podcast episode itself, lemme just do a very quick introduction of myself.

My name is Dianna Santos. I'm the owner and lead instructor for Family Dog University, Dog Sport University, Scent Work University, and Canine Fitness University. These are online dog training platforms that are designed to provide high quality dog training instruction to as many people as possible. And we're quite fortunate to have a client base that's worldwide for Family Dog University in particular, we provide perfect puppies program, a family dog program, a CGC prep program, a real life skills program. And all of these are offered through online courses, seminars, and webinars, as well as a regularly updated blog and podcasts like what you're listening to today. So just know a little bit more about me. Let's dive into the podcast episode itself. Thank you so much for doing this podcast with us today. I think it's a really important thing to talk about. What I'm hoping to just start off with is that we can maybe get some definitions down so that people can really have an understanding of this stuff. So a really simple question that may not be that simple after all is what exactly do you consider to be a service dog?

Laura Demaio Roy (01:41):
It's not what I consider to be a service dog, it's what the ADA considers to be a service dog by law. And that's a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform task. For an individual with a disability, the task performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability and the dog must be trained to take a specific action when needed by the person with the disability.

Dianna L. Santos (02:05):
That's perfect. And I think that's a really important thing for people to realize is that this is not something that we can just willy-nilly define. It's

Laura Demaio Roy (02:12):
Not an emotional support animal. It's not a dog that brings you comfort just by existing. This is a dog that's trained to take an action or do a task based on your behavior or your cues.

Dianna L. Santos (02:25):
Perfect. So as far as what it is that this dog has to do since they are doing these specific tasks, what type of training does the trainer have to go through in order to ensure that if you were to get a request, I need a service dog to do X, Y, and Z? Well then how would you know how to do that? So could you just walk through that a little bit? What type of training or certifications do actual service dog trainers have to go through to ensure they're doing a good job?

Laura Demaio Roy (02:56):
And that's a really complicated conversation because there are no government regulated certifications for service dogs. But I'll tell you what I consider to be good certifications for service dogs. I'm a huge proponent of service dog trainers working for a program or under another trainer before they're considered service dogs. So my background, I started off working at Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, which is obviously a guide dog foundation, and we have a three year apprenticeship. So what that means is I'm hired on as an apprentice, I have three years of training underneath other certified service dog trainers. I go through three eight hour long tests. I practice in the field with someone first I observe, then I practice in the field with someone watching me, and then I go out and do those placements on my own with the dogs. So I have these three years where I'm learning the craft and the skill of being a service dog trainer. Now, that's not how everybody comes to it, but I'm a huge proponent of going through an organization because I think you get a better experience in a more well-rounded training program.

Dianna L. Santos (04:03):
So as far as in your experience, if you could just talk about what it is that you are actually going through when you are doing a placement, and then maybe tie that into how your own training and background ties into that so that if people are considering who are dog trainers, oh, I think I would like to do some service dog training and they just decide to offer it tomorrow, maybe that's not such a great idea.

Laura Demaio Roy (04:28):
So placement. So I'm actually what they call a placement specialist. So that means that what I do now is I specifically take dogs that have already been trained and I place them with clients because what a lot of people forget about service dog training and being a service dog trainer is half of the job is working with the person. And I think people forget that in dog training in general, but you need to understand the disabilities of the people that you're working with. And I think that's a critical thing that gets skipped over when people start becoming service dog trainers and start just randomly offering that because maybe they can train the tasks, but they don't have the background knowledge to be able to help the person as appropriately as they should. So in my placement, I'm typically working somewhere between six and eight hours a day in a person's home placing this new dog with them from anywhere from 10 to 15 days depending on whether they're a new client or not.

So I am there when they wake up in the morning, I'm showing them how to relieve the dog. I'm showing them how to feed the dog, we're doing the work, we're doing the obedience, I'm going to their local places that they go to with the dog. It's very intense for the person. It's emotionally intense, it's physically intense and it's a ton of work for the dog who maybe during training was only getting worked real actual service dog work for an hour a day. Now we're doing longer training sessions, obviously with breaks in between built up over time. And by the end I'm teaching that client everything that they need to know on how to be a service dog handler.

Dianna L. Santos (05:56):
And I think that that is a very key point for people to understand is that the training of the tasks is one thing, which again, I do think is a very important thing. We're going to touch upon that in just a second. But it's also translating that so the dog can actually do the work with the particular person. So could you talk about, before we dive into that other piece, what happens when a placement may not go well or when something goes awry? How are you able to then square that circle? How do you save a placement that may otherwise be going south?

Laura Demaio Roy (06:28):
Yeah, and that's a really good question. I realized on the last question you asked me also what my background is and I think that might be relevant. So I grew up with a father who has an eye disease and was going blind throughout my childhood. So that's how I got into service dog training. I get into service dog training on the client side, not the dog training side. And then I learned a lot more about training service dog specifically while I was in my apprenticeship. So I came at it not from the dog training side, but from the client services side. So that being said, what happens when a placement isn't going well? You're always going to have days on a placement when you're like, I dunno if this is going to work. And it's all about the dog having the skills to work through a problem and the person having the perseverance to work through the problem as well and being open to training the dog.

So for instance, on my last placement, I had a dog that was being just really silly about having their hands, their paws wiped down when they came in. And that may seem trivial, but for a person who's blind, they need the dog to sit still while they wipe their paws because it's easier for them to get them clean. So we have to go back and start working from the beginning, okay, we're just going to reach for the paw yes and reward. We're just going to touch the paw, yes and reward. We're going to do this with all the paws and break down that behavior. And we spent a couple days practicing that. And if the client had given up right away and just been like, ah, it's frustrating, I'm not doing it, then the placement can fail. Or if it's a more serious thing, sometimes the handler needs to adjust to the dog in the short term so that they can be a better team in the long term. But it's a lot of making sure that we're using positive reinforcement on our people as well that are handling these dogs. It's not just the dogs that need positive reinforcement to be able to build up their confidence with a new handler. We also need to make sure that the handler is having a good experience. And I always make sure to take it slow at the beginning and build just like you would train any dog on a new skill.

Dianna L. Santos (08:30):
And that's all really good to know and is a very important piece for people to keep in mind, particularly those who may be thinking about dabbling in service dog training, which I am not promoting in any way, shape or form. And I'm hoping that we can kind of put an end to that or maybe start that conversation with this podcast that

Laura Demaio Roy (08:50):
You dabbling.

Dianna L. Santos (08:51):
Yeah, dabbling bad is that you need to not only, it's not simply training the dog, dropping them off and saying bye. There has to be this period and you have to be able to carry the client over and the dog at the same time when they're still getting used to one another and you have the disability on top of it

Laura Demaio Roy (09:17):
To make sure you're first of all matching that dog with the right person. There's so many times that I see out in the field, dogs that are poorly matched for their human because the human is more laid back and the dog is super high energy or they're just not a good training fit for whatever reason, the company that I work for, fidelco spends a long time trying to figure out what the best fit for these particular dogs is going to be based on the human's lifestyle, their walking speed, their general temperament, how much they travel. I mean, there's a million things that go into picking the right dog for the person.

Dianna L. Santos (09:50):
Exactly. And I hope that people can better appreciate the real process that a we'll say legitimate service dog company and training goes through so that you are truly allowing the people who are receiving the dog to better live their lives. That's the whole purpose of this. It shouldn't simply be, well this sounds like something fun to do, let me offer this and then make some money off of it. That's not how this works.

Laura Demaio Roy (10:17):
We're talking about increasing people's independence and their confidence out in the world. So it's not a thing to be taken on lightly.

Dianna L. Santos (10:23):

Laura Demaio Roy (10:24):
And a bad experience can really, really affect someone. We want to make sure that we're thinking about long-term, is this the best thing for my client? Is giving them this dog going to put more frustration into their life rather than less?

Dianna L. Santos (10:41):
So I think that's a good segue for us then talk about what do you think are some of the real ethical problems for a trainer who may not have had, whether it's going through a program similar to yours, but they haven't had the internships, they haven't had a very comprehensive background or training, and they're just starting to offer this to people who may also not have your traditional disabilities of being blind or whatnot. But now it's PTSD, which is still you. Absolutely. I'm assuming, and correct me if I'm wrong, is that true PTSD does and can require a service dog to help?

Laura Demaio Roy (11:20):
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. So invisible disabilities are still disabilities, right? They're just a little bit harder to see and you get a lot more questions in public about why you have a dog. I've trained PTSD dogs though my background is in guide dogs. After I was taking a break from Fidelco, I did train at several other types of service dogs. And the most important thing there when trainers are jumping into this thing is understanding the disability. Now, absolutely every client is different. Every client's disability and how it presents and what they need is different. But ultimately you have to think about that client services side. And when you are talking about jumping into service dog training, because you can do the mechanics of teaching a task, the problem is you don't know what you don't know. And those are kind of things like etiquette service, dog etiquette, how do you ride in an elevator?

Are you going to do escalators with your dog? Well, how do you train escalators? That's not a typical thing that we train in a typical obedience dog. What do you do surrounding the laws? Do you know the laws in your state? How about the federal laws? How do you help a person who's been denied access to a new location? What's your role in that? How do you coach them in that? There are so many things on the handler side that are hard to know if you just haven't had the experience and worked under someone who is used to those problems popping up on a daily basis.

Dianna L. Santos (12:47):
Excellent. So if you came across someone who was interested as a trainer in starting to do service dog training or work, what would be your suggestion as far as what it is that they should do? What should be their steps as far as going about this the right way? And again, I don't think anyone's doing this maliciously. I don't think it'd be like, aha, I'm going to ruin people's lives. I think that they maybe want to help, but again, you see time and time again, people who need help are getting burned. Or what would you suggest for those individuals who are interested in getting into service dog training, what types of steps should they take to ensure they don't fall into that pitfall?

Laura Demaio Roy (13:26):
I think to think training under someone who knows what they're doing is critically important. And that doesn't necessarily have to be in person because there are very few well-qualified service dog trainers in any given location. So if you can get under a trainer, that's awesome. A lot of trainers who are doing it privately are small businesses and not bigger organizations, so they may not take on an apprentice. So you don't necessarily have to work with someone in person. You can work with someone remotely. So I've done consults for other service dog trainers when they get stuck. And you can also take some really good online courses in becoming a service dog trainer. Service Dog Institute in Canada has a really good one, and some specific trainers do some online learning that can get you started. But I am a big proponent of working under someone to start with because there's so many things that you can get into, or at least having a mentor that you have available to help you through some of those challenges that you're going to find with clients.

Dianna L. Santos (14:23):
So for those individuals who may go through that path, they're working with a mentor, they're also doing some virtual consultations, maybe they also found an internship, what do they do as far as someone contacts them and says, this is my disability. I would like a service dog, but I do not have a dog. What is the trainer supposed to do then?

Laura Demaio Roy (14:44):
That is the challenging question. So looking for a service dog is its own thing. I always to people to get an adult well bred, 1-year-old Labrador now only so many of those exist in the world. So it's a lot of reaching out to reputable breeders and seeing if they have, for instance, a show dog that they're not going to continue with or reaching out and looking for puppies. Now there's some types of disabilities that I don't think lend themselves well to raising your own dog. And I love an adult dog because I know the temperament. I can temperament and test them and get a really good read, whereas puppies, you're not getting as accurate a read. And when you're talking about a private client, they're investing a lot of resources, money, emotions, time, all of that, and this puppy and you want them to be as successful as possible on the other end of this.

So finding a reputable, well-bred dog that has a history of success with that breeder in service dog training, not therapy dog training, service dog training, and ideally in the specific type of training that you're looking for, because a hearing dog is very different than a guide dog. And that's hard. It's not an easy thing. I search, I moved to Colorado, I had to search quite a bit to find breeders that I thought were reputable enough to recommend to my clients. So it's hard. It's not easy, and you have to tell your clients that it could take six months to a year and a half to find the right dog. And this is such a now culture that that's really hard to hear for most people.

Dianna L. Santos (16:20):
That's really good for people to know. I don't think it's something that people really consider. Maybe they go through all the steps of how to become a trainer, but then they're like, oh, well here I have a client. Client's like, great, where's the dog? And now that you have to figure that out.

Laura Demaio Roy (16:35):
And a lot of people want to use rescue dogs for this work, and some rescue dogs work well. However, you have to go through so many dogs and you don't know their health conditions, you don't know their background. And you'll find it's very hard to go through rescues because they don't want to adopt a dog out that's going to wash, right, that you're not going to keep long-term or might go to someone else. So finding appropriate rescue dogs is really hard. I went down to Service Dog Inc to do a week long, and that's another great place for people to check out some training. Service Dog Inc in Texas has hands-on in-Person Week-long intensives down there. And I did one down there where we went and evaluated. We went to a shelter when we evaluated some of the dogs that they had there and they had probably about 400 dogs and zero of them were appropriate for service dog work. So that's why I'm always trying to work with appropriate breeders because it's easier to know what you're going to get and you have a better chance of success, especially when you're talking about owner

Dianna L. Santos (17:36):
Trainers. And that's a scary statistic. But a good one for people to realize is that this isn't simply, well, you just take any dog off the street and they can do this. They're doing a very important job. They need to have very specific qualities about them in order to do the work. And you're trying to again, improve this person's life and they can't be stuck with a behavior modification.

Laura Demaio Roy (17:59):
Exactly. Service dogs are not behavior mod cases, and that's so important to note. Now, I had a rescue dog though, that the woman had rescued. It was a one and a half year old lab, and it was a total fluke, started alerting to her heart condition. We tested the doggy, did great, we put him through training. He was excellent. So it's not that it can't happen, it's just that most of the time those things are flukes and not your go-to option.

Dianna L. Santos (18:22):
So was there anything else that you just wanted to share with any of your fellow training colleagues out there in the world about service dog training, whether or not they want to get involved, how they can go about doing it, little pieces of information or advice that you would like to share? Anything else you want to tell them?

Laura Demaio Roy (18:38):
Yeah, I would start by looking into companies that make sense for you to possibly work under to start with. And when you do that, you want to look at Assistance Dog International. They have specific qualifications to be a DI certified, and that's a really good place to start. You want to also look at videos of the training of these dogs, references for people who have trained with them, because you're going to learn a lot from what kind of stuff they're putting out on social media and that can kind of help you make a decision about whether or not that's something that you want to get involved in. And then the other thing to think about when you're thinking about adding this to your repertoire of training is these are people's lives and there's a lot riding on it and there's a lot of heartbreak in it.

Sometimes you'll start a dog and three months in that dog is not appropriate. You find a little glitch in the chain and the dog is not appropriate for service dog work. And now you've got a client who's invested a lot of time, money and energy and a dog, and you have to tell them or suggest to them or gently lead them towards the answer that this dog needs a career change. But now we're not talking about an organization that has the ability to easily rehome or career change that dog. We're talking about you having to tell this person that this dog that they've raised and live with isn't going to be a service dog for X, Y, and Z reason. And that can be really challenging. There's a lot of nights I've cried over something not working out for a client or the dog gets attacked and no longer can be a service dog because now they're too reactive around other dogs. They're reactive around other dogs or watching their back. So there's a lot of really amazing things that service dogs can do for people. But on the client side and the business side, there's also a lot of challenges.

Dianna L. Santos (20:28):
Thank you for sharing that. I think it's a very important thing for people to understand and to really internalize because these are the same exact things that I think you're seeing as a trend as more and more people dip their toe into this where there should be no dipping, there should be no dabbling. It's either you really commit or maybe you don't do this.

Laura Demaio Roy (20:48):
Commit to getting the education that you need to help your clients in the best way that you can and to be a resource for them because these people are looking for you to be a resource and have guidance. I still get emails from clients I trained with two or three years ago saying, Hey, this public access issue came up. How do I deal with this? And you are the expert. And if you're not the expert, then maybe it's not the right thing for you to get into, or you need a lot more training before you start offering that as your service.

Dianna L. Santos (21:17):
Well, I want to thank you very much, Laura. I think this was extraordinarily helpful. I think that this is something for all of our colleagues and us to keep in mind and to realize that this is not simply just something that, oh, well, I can add this onto my resume and it looks pretty. You really have to be thoughtful about what is involved truly with service dog training, the side of the dog training the tasks, but also dealing with the client and how it is so incredibly important to their lives. So I want to thank you so much and I wish you all the best with all this craziness is going on in the world. Thank you

Laura Demaio Roy (21:49):
So much. It's been great to be on here. And you too, stay safe.

Dianna L. Santos (21:53):
Thank you. You too. I want to thank Laura for joining us in this very important conversation about service dogs and having this conversation geared towards other professional dog trainers who may be considering adding this as one of their services. I hope that you found this podcast helpful. Happy training. We look forward to seeing you soon.