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What does a guide dog trainer do?
A guide dog trainer is sometimes also known as an assistance dog trainer. They select and train dogs to help people with disabilities, such as those who are blind and visually impaired. Some trainers specialise in training dogs to assist people with mobility issues, specific medical conditions, autism, anxiety, deafness and hearing impairments.
Puppies are usually born in volunteers’ homes and sent to a breeding centre at around six weeks old. Once puppies are vaccinated and microchipped and have spent some time at a breeding centre for socialisation and profiling, they spend approximately a year with a volunteer puppy walker. After this time, the dogs go to a guide dog training school where a guide dog trainer trains and prepares the dog to work with disabled individuals. Once fully trained, the dog is matched with a client (an owner). This process can differ and some guide dog trainers may look after and train the dogs from puppyhood to adulthood.
A guide dog trainer’s main aim is to train dogs to perform at a level to help disabled people maintain independence, gain confidence and travel safely. They will carry out many tasks, including following specific training plans, using positive training techniques, assessing dogs’ abilities, matching trained dogs with clients, providing aftercare, etc. Some trainers may also get involved with dog husbandry, e.g. feeding, walking and grooming, and meeting other welfare needs.
Guide dog trainers will work with various people, including other guide dog trainer colleagues, support staff, foster carers and volunteers. They will also liaise with external stakeholders, including clients and their families, dog breeders, rescue centres, vets, the public, charities and others. They will work in various places, such as their own homes, clients’ homes/workplaces/businesses, training centres/schools and outdoors.
Most guide dog trainers are employed by, or volunteer for, charities that breed and train dogs to help people with various disabilities, particularly sight loss and other visual impairments.
A guide dog trainer’s responsibilities will depend on who they are employed by and the types of dogs and disabled people they work with.
Some examples of duties can include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Working with volunteer puppy walkers.
- Training the dogs to specific programmes and standards using various positive training techniques.
- Meeting the dogs’ welfare needs, e.g. feeding, walking, housing, veterinary care and affection.
- Assessing and evaluating the dogs’ performance and abilities.
- Matching the dogs with new clients once the dogs are fully trained.
- Training the dogs and their new owners together.
- Giving specialist advice to owners when needed.
- Providing support and aftercare.
- Keeping accurate records and producing reports.
A guide dog trainer can expect to work 35–40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on their role and the owner’s and dog’s needs.
Being a guide dog trainer is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours. The role can involve occasional work in the evenings, weekends and bank holidays.
Travel is a requirement and can be extensive, especially if a dog is with an owner living further away. Guide dog trainers may also need to travel between clients during their shifts, which can lengthen the working day.
There may be opportunities for guide dog trainers to work overseas.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a guide dog trainer, especially if an individual loves working with dogs and wants to help people. Training a dog to help disabled people and seeing individuals become more confident and independent can be extremely rewarding. Guide dog trainers can go home at the end of their working day fulfilled, knowing they are making a positive difference in disabled people’s lives. As disabled people can also face more dangers, a guide dog can help them navigate potentially life-threatening hazards. Therefore, guide dog trainers can even help save lives.
Boredom will never be a problem for guide dog trainers. They will work with different dog breeds, usually Labradors, retrievers and German shepherds. Also, all dogs have different personalities and characteristics, so some can be easier to train than others. Guide dog trainers will travel nationally to work with owners and their dogs. They will also meet many people during their working day.
Even though being a guide dog trainer is rewarding, and there are many positives, individuals should consider the cons and challenges, for example:
- Getting attached to the dogs – individuals can get close to a dog when working with them. It can be difficult and upsetting to say goodbye. What prospective guide dog trainers should remember is that even though the dogs will not be a part of their everyday life, they will still see them and knowing they are making a significant difference to a disabled person’s life can make it easier.
- Challenging dogs (and people) – some dogs will be easier to train than others, and some can be challenging. Individuals will sometimes need a lot of patience during training. Some owners can also be hard to deal with, so individuals will need a compassionate and calm approach. The public can be problematic, especially if they want to pet the dogs during training. Individuals must be polite but firm to ensure the dog’s training is on track.
- Working with dogs – dogs lick, drool, moult, get parasites (worms, ticks and fleas), roll in unpleasant things, get dirty and need to do their business. It goes without saying that an individual needs to love being around dogs to do this role. It would not be suitable for those with allergies or who are averse to picking up dog poo or having dog fur on their clothes. Another thing that individuals must bear in mind is that dogs can be unpredictable, particularly if afraid. However, this will be assessed during profiling and evaluation.
- Intensive training and competition – becoming a guide dog trainer is difficult. The training is intensive and is often at an academy. Also, there are not many roles, so competition for them can be fierce. Individuals must stand out from the crowd and be prepared to work hard.
- Physical and mental demands – an individual needs to have a certain fitness level to be a guide dog trainer, as it can be physically demanding, e.g. walking far distances, training and travelling in all weathers. The dogs that undergo training are typically large breeds (around 25–40kg), so individuals must be capable of handling them. The role can also be mentally demanding and stressful, especially if training is not going as anticipated.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective guide dog trainers must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable career. It is physically and mentally demanding, there is the potential to get attached to the dogs, roles are few and far between, and some dogs and people can be challenging to train. However, there are many positives too, and it is so rewarding to train dogs to help people with disabilities lead fulfilling and happy lives.
When considering whether to be a guide dog trainer, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a guide dog trainer
Some of the personal qualities that a guide dog trainer requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for dogs and helping people.
- Enjoy being outdoors in all weathers.
- Caring, compassionate, understanding and empathetic.
- Friendly, enthusiastic, helpful, engaging and cooperative.
- Confident, patient, persuasive and assertive.
- Knowledge of dog behaviour and handling.
- Knowledge of teaching, training and instructing.
- Knowledge and understanding of disabilities.
- Excellent written and verbal communication skills.
- Active listening skills.
- Customer service skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Leadership skills.
- Time management, planning and organisational skills.
- Thinking and reasoning skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- The ability to develop strong relationships.
- The ability to relate to dogs of all ages.
- The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to maintain good voice control.
- The ability to be consistent and adhere to training plans.
- The ability to work well with others, e.g. colleagues and clients, and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to follow and give instructions clearly.
- The ability to be flexible and adapt to change.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to use IT and software packages.
The entry requirements to become a guide dog trainer can vary between employers. Having an animal behaviour, care or management qualification and experience with dogs and disabled people can maximise an individual’s chance of being successful. Individuals could go to university or college, apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly to charities. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
Having an undergraduate or postgraduate degree can help individuals stand out from the crowd.
Some examples of relevant courses are:
- BSc (Hons) Animal Management.
- Foundation Degree in Animal Management (FdSc).
The entry requirements will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying. They will typically need three good A Levels or a certain number of UCAS points to get into university. Some institutions also invite applicants for an interview as part of the selection process.
Undertaking a college course can help individuals get into the role, for example:
- Level 1 or 2 Diploma in Animal Care.
- Level 3 Advanced Technical Diploma in Animal Management.
- T Level in Animal Care and Management.
Individuals usually need:
- Level 1 course – two or fewer GCSEs at grades 3 to 1 (D to G) or equivalent.
- Level 2 course – two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
- T Level/Level 3 courses – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English and maths.
Always check the entry requirements before applying.
Individuals may want to enrol on a dog behaviour or handling course, which colleges and private training providers may offer.
Individuals are not guaranteed success with courses and qualifications. However, it will demonstrate to employers that they are keen on the job and may give individuals a competitive edge.
There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals become a guide dog trainer, e.g. intermediate apprenticeship as an animal care and welfare assistant and an animal trainer higher apprenticeship.
Individuals will usually need the following:
- Intermediate apprenticeship – some GCSEs including English and maths, or equivalent.
- Higher or degree apprenticeship – four or five GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), including English and maths, or equivalent.
Opportunities are found on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Indeed.
Individuals could apply directly to guide dog training organisations and charities, such as:
- Guide Dogs.
- Dogs for Good.
- Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.
- Canine Partners.
- Dog A.I.D.
- Assistance Dogs UK.
These organisations will usually require specific qualifications and experience working with dogs. Some may also ask for additional skills, e.g. working with disabled people and teaching/training.
Some charities may take on individuals without qualifications, e.g. if an individual wants to become a guide dog trainer for the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, they can apply directly for their learning programme through their Academy, which includes on-the-job training. This route is for individuals who do not possess a qualification recognised by the International Guide Dog Federation.
Having the right personal qualities to be a guide dog trainer is essential. Also, relevant work experience, either paid or voluntary, can help individuals enter the profession.
To gain experience working with dogs, they could get a job as:
- A kennel assistant.
- A dog handler, trainer, walker, groomer or sitter.
- A dog daycare assistant.
- An animal carer.
Experience in the following areas can also be beneficial:
- Teaching, training and giving instructions.
- Working with disabled people or those with specific conditions, e.g. autism.
- Veterinary care.
- Animal behaviour.
- Hazard identification.
Volunteering can also help individuals build their knowledge and skills. There may be opportunities to volunteer for charities as:
- A kennel worker.
- A dog rescue centre worker or foster carer.
- A guide dog puppy walker.
- A puppy or adult dog socialiser.
Any work experience and training with dogs and disabled people can help individuals stand out from the crowd. Even community courses can help, e.g. dog walking and sign language.
Training courses to become a guide dog trainer
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide relevant training courses.
Some examples of courses that may be useful for guide dog trainers include:
- Health and safety, e.g. hazard identification and risk assessment.
- First aid.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Equality, diversity and inclusion.
- Time management.
- Customer service skills.
There are also courses on dogs, for example:
- Dog behaviour and training.
- Dog handling.
- Canine nutrition.
- Canine care and welfare.
- First aid for dogs.
- Dog sitting and walking.
- Guide dog trainer.
There are also courses to help individuals understand various disabilities and conditions, for example:
- Understanding sight loss.
- Understanding hearing loss.
- Sign language.
- Lip reading.
- Autism awareness.
- ADHD awareness.
- Disability awareness.
Charities, federations and associations, such as Guide Dogs, Dogs for Good, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Canine Partners, Dog A.I.D., Assistance Dogs UK and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become guide dog trainers and give those already in the role the means to continue their professional development.
The type of training required will depend on the organisation an individual works for and the disabilities in which they specialise. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the training needed for roles. Jobs can be found on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Assistance Dogs UK and charity websites.
More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also advisable as techniques and standards change. It also keeps an individual’s knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Guide dog trainers must undergo a criminal record check, as they will have contact with vulnerable people. A criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Guide dog trainers will need to travel extensively as part of their role and need a full driving licence, preferably with no points, and access to a vehicle. If they are using their own vehicle, it must be insured for business use.
Individuals must be at least 18 years old to be guide dog trainers.
Where do guide dog trainers work?
Most guide dog trainers will work for charities specialising in breeding and training guide dogs.
They can work in a variety of settings, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Training centres and schools.
- Clients’ homes.
- Their own homes.
- Outdoors and public places, e.g. parks, shops, restaurants and cafes.
Guide dog trainers will be required to travel to various places. They will need to visit clients and the dogs at their homes and may need to take the dogs to different places in the car during training.
There may be opportunities for some guide dog trainers to work overseas.
How much do guide dog trainers earn?
What guide dog trainers earn will depend on who they work for, their location and experience, and the disabilities they specialise in.
According to Indeed, the salaries for Guide Dogs for the Blind Association trainers are as follows (these figures are a guide and are subject to change):
- Low – £10,000 per year.
- Average – £20,943 per year.
- High – £32,000 per year.
Some employers offer numerous benefits, such as pensions, gym memberships, cycle-to-work schemes, employee assistance programmes, generous sick pay, etc.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this. However, it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of guide dog training roles to specialise in
Most guide dog trainers will work for charities that breed and train guide dogs for individuals who are blind or have other visual impairments. There are also guide dog mobility support specialists where individuals train the dogs and deliver a safe and efficient guide dog service to support a person with sight loss.
There are also other types of guide dog training roles available, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Autism assistance dog trainer – trains dogs to support autistic people with various day-to-day tasks, including social interactions.
- Hearing dog trainer – trains dogs to help individuals who are deaf or have other hearing impairments. The dogs receive specific training on alerting the owners to important sounds, such as alarm clocks, babies crying and smoke alarms.
- Seizure alert dog trainer – trains dogs to support owners suffering from seizures and specific needs, e.g. epilepsy. The dogs receive specific training on warning their owner before a seizure occurs.
- Canine partner dog trainer – trains dogs to help owners with physical disabilities complete everyday tasks that can be difficult and painful. Some examples of things dogs are trained to help with include loading and unloading washing machines, opening and closing doors, fetching money and belongings, getting help in an emergency, etc.
There may also be opportunities for guide dog trainers to specialise in training specific dog breeds, such as Labradors, golden retrievers, German shepherds and poodles.
Various guide dog training roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All guide dog trainers need a passion for dogs and helping people with disabilities and should be comfortable and competent with all aspects of dog handling and training. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for and the specialisms a guide dog trainer wants to work in.
If guide dog trainers do not carry out their roles properly, it could result in guide dogs not being trained correctly and incompatible matches between dogs and owners, which can put disabled people at risk. In worse cases, people and dogs could be injured and put in life-threatening situations. Therefore, guide dog trainers must be competent and ensure they are suitable for the role.
Standards, training techniques, laws and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, guide dog trainers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to ensure they carry out their roles effectively and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives guide dog trainers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities and progress in their careers.
Joining a charity, federation or association can help prospective and current guide dog trainers enhance their skills and overall career. Guide Dogs, Dogs for Good, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Canine Partners, Dog A.I.D., Assistance Dogs UK and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is an opportunity for career progression for guide dog trainers. With more qualifications and experience, they can become an area team supervisor, training manager or regional manager. Alternatively, they may decide to work for the RSPCA as an inspector or move into veterinary nursing. Individuals may choose to work more with disabled people.
The knowledge, skills and experience from being a guide dog trainer can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could apply for a job in the police as a dog handler/puppy development assistant or work with dogs in a rescue centre. They could become self-employed and have their own business as a dog trainer, behaviourist, sitter, walker or boarder.
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