Aiming to develop a pipeline of highly qualified dog trainers, K9s For Warriors has established a dedicated K9 trainer apprentice program, which officially began in March. After receiving more than 500 applications, four individuals were selected to take part in the inaugural five-month (20 week) training class, with the program being conducted at K9s For Warriors’ Gold Family Campus in Alachua, Fla.
“When I started at K9s For Warriors in 2018, we were essentially giving consideration to any trainers who were interested,” said Lora Toney, K9 trainer manager, Gold Family Campus. “We quickly realized that everyone had a different idea of what successful Service Dog training looked like. When it came time for Warriors to hold their Service Dogs accountable, or if they made an incorrect decision, [Warriors] weren’t always sure how to troubleshoot or problem solve because the training styles varied so much.”
To help address the matter, K9s For Warriors spent the past few years formulating an apprentice program that would prepare its graduates to seamlessly transition into full-time dog trainers. The immersive, learning development curriculum focuses on things such as acceptable training methods and dog-learning theory, along with dog behavior and modification.
“You can be an expert in theoretical approach, but if you aren’t able to properly grasp hands-on dog training techniques, then you’re not a good trainer,” said Rob Gunsel, apprentice instructor at K9s for Warriors. “We are working with rescue and shelter dogs who have learned all the wrong habits. Being able to troubleshoot and modify those behaviors hands-on is the most important part of this role.”
Another critical element of the apprentice program is how it will help contribute to the broader mission of K9s For Warriors.
With plans to break ground on a Northeast Florida mega kennel in June that can house more than 150 Service Dogs-in-training, along with the Petco Love K9 Center opening this fall in San Antonio to focus on larger rescue dogs, the number of veterans who will have an opportunity to be paired with a four-legged battle buddy will be greater than ever before.
“It’s not as though we can simply turn a switch and make more copies of well-trained Service Dogs,” said Paul Mundell, chief program officer at K9s For Warriors. “The skillset required of both the dog and trainer are unique. This program will allow us to ensure quality control and uniformity, regardless of location.”
Apprentices are taught to utilize positive reinforcement techniques to establish behaviors they are seeking. Given the challenging background of many rescue dogs, the use of positive reinforcement allows apprentices to help dogs navigate making the proper decisions to unlock their potential. In turn, the dogs will be prepared to serve as an invaluable resource for veterans battling service-related trauma.
“One of the biggest lessons we teach apprentices is that [veteran] handlers won’t have the same level of communication ability or confidence that trainers have, especially in public settings,” Toney said. “We are teaching these dogs to help the Warriors make better choices when they’re in public settings. Our goal is to get the dog to act based on the environmental context of a situation, without being directed to do it by their handler.”
Each apprentice is evaluated through research assignments, quizzes, and written exams, along with a fifth week, 10th week and final (week 20) skills evaluation. The inaugural class of apprentices are responsible for training 12 dogs in total, with each overseeing a “string” of dogs specifically assigned to them.
“It’s important to make sure each dog on their string has different strengths, weaknesses and temperaments,” Gunsel said. “Some dogs walk really easily on leash, and some are a little more unruly. Some react or bark in certain situations, and some are more low-key. Apprentices have multiple sessions every day with each dog in their string, with different challenges to work through to help them form a well-rounded skillset. They are responsible for the progress of their string, and that’s how they’re ultimately being evaluated.”
Apprentices also are being assessed on their ability to read dog body language and are given an opportunity to make any course corrections as needed.
“Waiting for a trainer to encounter all of these situations by chance would mean spending years on development,” Mundell said. “We want to accelerate the learning process while making sure apprentices are encountering these practices in the right order. It doesn’t help if they encounter a new experience early in their training if they haven’t yet been given the tools to properly assess what they’re seeing. This program allows us to efficiently ensure that they’re getting a graduated level of exposure where one piece is building on another.”
The inaugural class of apprentices is scheduled to graduate at the end of July. K9s For Warriors will welcome a second class in January 2022 and ultimately plans to conduct two separate five-month classes each year, with six apprentices taking part in a class.
“We are looking for candidates who are humble to the process and have the ability to be adaptable,” Gunsel said. “They’re going to be coached, mentored and given constructive criticism. It’s also important that apprentices fully understand our end goal in preparing these dogs for a Warrior whose life will depend on them, and vice versa.”
After formally completing the five-month program, graduates will spend the next two or three months working under the direction of a mentor trainer. Following that span and upon familiarizing themselves with their new responsibilities and surroundings, they officially will transition to a full-time trainer role.
“We’ve been given an incredible opportunity to proactively implement this apprentice program before our San Antonio and mega kennel facilities are completed,” Toney said. “This allows us to develop our training staff for each location and set them up to succeed. It also lets us ensure the dogs we’ll soon be allocating to these locations can do the job and properly handle the stresses of Service Dog work, tackling any challenges that their future Warrior handlers will face.”