Finding a potential service dog is like finding candidates for a job opening, and choosing the right candidate is one of the most important decisions you will make on your service dog training journey.
“Job description: Seeking dogs interested in being a service dog. Must enjoy taking care of humans, willing to do anything for a treat, comfortable in all environments, and patient, tolerant and forgiving of people trying to pet you, stepping on you, or bumping into you in public. Hours are 24/7 even when you’re tired, a little stressed, or unhappy. Sick leave included. Little to no vacation time. Pay includes treats, attention, and the undying love of your handler.
If you’re interested, send your health certificate, resume, and pedigree showing you come from parents who have produced other service dogs. Anxious, aggressive, or fearful dogs need not apply.”
Being a service dog is hard work and not every dog is suited to it. Just like being a teacher, lawyer, or surgeon isn’t for every person.
Unfortunately, there is no way to read a dog’s mind and find out if they would like to be a service dog, and there is no way of looking into the future to find out if an individual will make it through the training process. But, a lot of research, some thought, and a good screening process will help you choose a dog that is most likely to be successful (you can get the evaluation we use by clicking here).
Choosing a Breed
Does breed matter when choosing a service dog? It is kind of a loaded question with people divided in two camps. One group says breed matters. Another group says breed doesn’t matter, only the dog’s individual temperament.
Here is what I think. Breed does matter, just not as much as the dog’s individual temperament.
Here’s why: Training a service dog is hard enough without choosing a breed whose genes will work against you.
You can find dogs within ANY breed that are excellent service dogs, BUT there are some breeds that are more likely to produce dogs with temperaments suited for service work.
Consider the tasks you will be training:
• Mobility work: You will need a large dog if they are going to pull a wheel chair or provide bracing.
• Diabetic alert work: You’ll need a dog with a great nose and uses that nose naturally. A smaller dog is capable of doing scent work.
• Psychiatric work: Some breeds will have a tendency to feed off their owner’s anxiety and become anxious or aggressive themselves. We see this a lot in breeds like German shepherds.
The dog’s size:
• Task training: A smaller dog will be fully capable of doing scent or alert work, but you’ll need a larger dog if you need mobility work.
• The smaller the dog the easier they fit places. Smaller dogs fit on airplanes, under chairs, and on public transportation more easily than larger dogs.
Service dogs must be clean and well groomed in public so, your interest in grooming your own dog, your ability to do so, or your willingness and ability to pay a groomer are certainly things to think about.
• Short-coated dogs with with thick coats (such as labs) have a wash and wear type coat. They will need regular brushing to keep shedding down, but the double coat will provide protection in all types of weather and doesn’t need any trimming.
• Poodles: Poodles do not shed and their coat will provide protection in weather, but they will need to be groomed every 4-8 weeks. You can learn to do this yourself or you can take them to a groomer.
If you, or someone in your family has allergies, a poodle is your best bet. However, any dog that is groomed every 4-8 weeks will have greatly reduced shedding which helps many people with allergies. This means that even a lab that is taken to the groomer every four weeks will shed minimally.
• A note on doodles: Poodle mixes have become quite popular as service dogs, and for good reason, they have excellent noses and have excellent temperaments. However, many of them shed quite heavily and they all require regular grooming. When breeds are mixed it is hard to determine what the coat type will be as an adult.
Some doodles will have poodle like coats that do not shed, others will shed quite heavily, and some will have combination coats. If you are looking for a doodle that doesn’t shed, make sure you speak with your breeder to determine if their line would be a good fit or you.
This is one of the biggest factors when choosing a breed. You have to choose a breed that will fit into your life. Do you have kids or other pets? Do you live in the country or in the city? How active are you? How is your personality suited to the personality of the breed you’re considering? These are just a few of the things you need to consider:
•How often do you travel? If you do a lot of traveling by air you might want to consider a smaller breed (if your task permits it) as a smaller dog will simply fit more comfortably on an airline.
•How active are you? Exercise requirements and energy levels vary greatly from breed to breed. If you start your day by running 5 miles, go to work for nine hours, run errands, and then entertain your children all night, you will need a dog with far more energy than someone who rarely leaves their home. Lets use border collies as an example, my most favorite breed of all time.
Some of them have quite low energy levels, but in general these dogs need a lot of exercise. Think about it, they were bred to herd sheep all day.
This means that if you are not a very active person, you will likely have a bored dog with tendencies towards rearranging your house, chasing cats, or barking out the window. If you are a runner who is on the move all day a border collie may be a good fit. Which brings us to:
What was the breed created to do?
What the breed was created for matters, a lot, so make sure you do your research. Read about what the breed was created to do, how they were created, and how they are being used today.
Here are a few of the breeds we get asked about the most. Before you read this let me make something clear, I know service dogs of all the breeds I am about to list, but the dogs that tend to be successful are generally the odd balls out:
• German shepherds were created to “tend” sheep, which means they were supposed to be a living fence, constantly pacing a line and keeping the sheep within a boundary. This means they were bred to run MILES every single day so they need a lot of exercise. They were also bred to guard, which means they tend to be on the look out for danger, they tend to be hyper aware of their surroundings, and they tend to be protective. These are not traits that make for a good service dog. There are OF COURSE exceptions, I know of plenty of excellent German shepherd service dogs. But the handlers who are successful with them understand the breed and their needs.
• Pointers of any variety were bred to hunt ALL DAY. They have a ton of energy, energy that must have an outlet. Don’t get me wrong, these dogs are trainable, have excellent noses, and tend to be very people oriented, but their energy level is way too high for most of the people we meet. For example, most of the top ski-boring dog (a race where dogs pull their owners on skis) are pointers.
• Huskies were bred to pull sleds all day. This requires a tremendous amount of energy which means they need a lot of exercise. They were bred to pull sleds in a direction AWAY from their handlers, which means they tend to run away from their handlers and they tend to pull on the leash. They are vocal, tend to be a bit stubborn, and their coats require massive amounts of grooming to keep the shedding under control.
• Greyhounds were bred to sprint after small animals once per day. This means they have a high prey drive for small animals (they like to chase them), they don’t tend to be very into their noses, and they don’t tend to be very food motivated. They also tend to be lazy, so it is unlikely they will take it upon themselves to get off of the couch and alert you to something.
Cattle dogs were bred to herd and heavily punish 1,200lb animals, this comes with a certain attitude. Terriers were bred to kill things, this comes with a certain temperament. Great Pyrenees were bred to work without people, this creates a certain stubbornness. I could go on and on. My point is to research your breed carefully. Learn about what it was created to do and how that impacts temperament and energy levels.
• In some areas of the country, dogs of different breeds tend to have more problems with access than breeds such as labs or golden retrievers, simply because these are the breeds most associated with service dogs.
• Flashy breeds like Dalmatians will attract A LOT of attention when you are out in public.
• Just because a breed is “smart” or “easy to train” doesn’t mean they’ll make a good service dog and it definitely doesn’t mean they’ll be easy to live with. Lets talk about border collies again (remember I love this breed). They consistently rate as the smartest breed in the world. Sounds good right? They’ll learn things so quickly and training will be easy right?
Wrong. They can be so smart that they have questions, they have opinions, and sometimes they’re certain you’re doing things the wrong way. If you fail to keep that brilliant brain busy, you’ll have a dog finding it’s own form of entertainment, and trust me, you won’t like it. Generally for service work I’ll take a slightly less smart dog any day. They may not learn quite as fast, but they don’t push the boundaries so much either.
• Breeds like pit bulls, Dobermans, Rottweilers etc have a bad reputation. While many of these breeds actually make excellent service dogs, they will often have more issues with public access and landlords. People tend to avoid them, so if you have an anxiety related disorder, or need to train blocking, this could be a plus. Black dogs also tend to get avoided.
Long story short, there are a lot of reasons poodles, labs, golden retrievers, and mixes of these are so popular for service work. They were bred to work with people, not to make decisions on their own.
They tend to be easy to train and motivate. They are people oriented, adaptable, and unlikely to feed off their owner’s anxiety. They also have great noses for people who need scent work, and their size is large enough for many mobility tasks without being too large to easily to travel with.
As I have said before, and will say again in the future, you can find a good service dog candidate within any breed. But, the “non traditional” breeds will require more searching on your part and may require more time to train.
If you know a certain breed well, have researched it thoroughly, and are certain it matches your lifestyle, then by all means go find a dog of that breed.
Choose your breed carefully, training a service dog is hard enough without choosing a dog whose genes work against you. Do your research and choose a breed that will suit your lifestyle and your needs.
Finding a Dog.
Once you have chosen a breed, the next thing to think about is whether you want to look in shelters or search for a breeder. For some people this decision is really easy, other people struggle with it.
Rescue dogs can make great service dogs, in fact, there are many organizations that train rescue dogs exclusively. There are a lot of dogs that need homes and many of them have the qualities needed for service work.
Adoption fees tend to be a lot lower than breeder fees, and most of these dogs come spayed/neutered and up to date on all vaccines.
The downside is you often have little to no history on the dog. This means you don’t know how many homes they’ve had, what their behavior is like, how well they were socialized, what their health has been like in the past, or anything about their parents, including health and temperament.
If you choose to go this route, it is especially important that you find a professional trainer to help you evaluate the dog.
On the other hand, if you choose a reputable breeder, you will have access to information about the temperaments and health of the parents, the grand parents, and the great grand parents. The parents will have been health tested and you’ll be able to meet them.
The puppies will have been given an excellent start in life including socialization from the time they are born. However, puppies from reputable breeders can cost up to $3,500 and this is still no guarantee they’ll make it as a service dog.
Unfortunately, there are lots of breeders out there that would not be considered reputable and choosing the wrong breeder will mean missing out on all the benefits listed above.
Another important factor when choosing your service dog candidate is age, here are some things to consider:
- Training a service dog can take up to two years and most retire before they are 10 (although not all). This means that the older a dog you start with the shorter their working career could be, so most trainers recommend starting with a dog under the age of two. For example, if you start with a 5 year old dog and it takes two years to train, your dog could already be 7 when your dog is considered fully trained.This means that while a dog is never too old to learn to be a service dog, you’ll get “more bang for your buck” if you start with a younger dog.
- Puppies should not leave their litter until 8 weeks of age. Removing a puppy from his litter sooner than this increases the chances of behavioral issues later on.
- Starting with an older dog can sometimes make things easier (especially if the dog is already started on basic obedience) or it can make things harder (older dogs may have preexisting habits you’ll have to fix). But, starting with an older dog can mean avoiding the puppy and adolescent stage.