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Service Dogs
Characteristics of the Right Dog
Service Dogs
What Service Dogs Do
Is a Service Dog for You
How to Get a Service Dog
The Right Dog
The Right Source
The Right Trainer
The Right Training
Your Goals
Your Resources
Getting Ready for a Service Dog
Equipment
Health Care
When You Get a Service Dog
Working in Public

Careful Screening
Entering into a relationship with a service dog is a serious comittment.  Before any decisions about a particular dog are made, several types of screening need to take place.  The primary areas that you will need to consult professionals about when interviewing a potential service dog candidate include: Health, Temperament, and Versitality.
 
If you are getting a service dog from an organization, they will have already been throught this process, but as an informed consumer, it is a good idea to check out these areas for yourself also, as added security.  Testing and rationale for doing so is discussed in great detail on the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners website.

Characteristics of the Right Dog
In this section, generalized reccomendations are discussed.  For every generalization there is always an exception.  The purpose here is not to create arguments about specific breeds that may or may not be helpful as service dogs.  Specific breeds mentioned will generally follow the guidelines suggested.  The object is to be able to choose the optimum dog for service dog work.
 
Age
The working life of a service dog, ideally, if no health problems intervene, depending upon the breed, could be up to maximum, eight years.  That would be if you got the dog at two years of age and s/he was able to work until age ten.  Real life does not always match the ideal.  Many dogs need to retire at age eight or nine.  Some dogs retire earlier.
 
If you start out with a four year old dog, and s/he works until age eight, you only get four years of partnership.
 
Size
The types of tasks and exercises you want the service dog to be able to do will determine your size requirements for a dog.  If you need mobility help, bracing, wheelchair pulling, etc. it will be important for the dog to be big enough to help you effectively. 
 
However, it is important to consider the relationship between size and longetivity.  Generally, the larger the dog, the shorter the life span.  With very large breed dogs, the life span may be only six or seven years.  When it takes at least eighteen months to train a service dog, that doesn't leave as much time before the dog will need to be retired as a dog with greater longetivity.
 
For alerting work, size is not critical.  Recently, "laptop" service dogs, particularly Papillions, have been found to be very effective, as well as easier to handle for people needing retrieval, alert, go for help, and non-mobility tasks.
 
Breed
Some organizations use only Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, or German Shepherds, the traditional breeds for service dog work.  Standard Poodles are an alternative non-allergenic choice.
 
As various breeds of dogs were developed over time, selection was made for particular traits and characteristics.  Some traits and characteristics in dogs are more important for service dog work.  Generally, high levels of trainability, willingness to please, and intellegence are necessary in a service dog.
 
Working, Herding and Sporting groups were bred to be in a working relationship with a human partner and generally have traits most condusive to this type of relationship.
 
If a Sporting dog is "too birdy" or "critters", it will not work out as a service dog, because it's interests lie elsewhere.  Many Herding type dogs will be too interested in the "chase", be too obsessive or hyperactive, or have a tendency to "nip", all characteristics which have been intentionally bred into them for herding, but will disqualify them for service dog work.  Some Working type dogs will be naturally too "owner-protective" to deal with public service dog work.
 
Nordic, Northern, and Sighthound breeds generally will not have the characteristics needed to be service dogs.  Their talents exsist in other areas.
 
 
Gender
Working service dogs are generally required to be spayed or neutered.  Hormonal influence to an intact animal interferes with concentration and ability to work.  Spaying and neutering also greatly decreases the incidence of cancer.
 
The actual gender of a service dog is not necessarily a determining factor in ability to work or placement.  Female and male dogs which have been spayed or neutered work equally well as service dogs.
 
Some people may have a gender preference in respect to the dog they want.  This is not usually a good criteria to use in choosing one dog over another.  Many other factors are much more important when making a choice between dogs.
 
Temperament
With any breed, a stable temperament is critical for a service dog.  Temperament is probably the single most important factor in successful selection of a service dog.  A large number of service dog possibilities are ruled out because of temperament characteristics.  This is an area where "almost" will not be good enough.
 
The dog will not be effective as a service dog if it is aggressive, fearful, inconsistent, or excitable.  Temperament testing is a controversial issue.  Puppy temperament tests can rule out individuals early on, but may not necessarily be an indicator of how the dog will turn out as an adult.
 
It is always a good idea, with any dog, to consult an experienced, independent, uninvolved professional dog trainer for temperament testing.  Organizations, breeders, and trainers can be "kennel blind" about dogs they have an attachment to, and may not be objective about temperament characteristics.  Also, a dog may not display certain tendencies in familiar environments, and with familiar people.
 
Several times during the training process, it is a good idea to have the dog's temperament independently evaluated.  At different ages, and different phases of the bonding process, the dog may show characteristics that were not apparent previously.  Be open minded.  If dependable sources suggest that the dog be ruled out as a service dog, do not ignore what they are saying and seek another opinion.  Another opinion may be different, but the information should be seriously considered.
 
Work Ethic
A dog's interest and motivation to do the work is crucial for an effective service dog.  A dog that likes to work and is proud of performing the tasks will make a good service dog.  A dog that is lazy, uninterested in working, "cheats" or is "sneaky" will not be consistent as a service dog.  With service dog work, a dog must want to do the work, and choose to be a service dog.  If a dog is ambivalent about the work of a service dog, performance will be poor.
 
Energy Level
The type of service dog you are looking for will contribute to your evaluation of the appropriate energy level you will want in a dog.  Generally, hearing dogs and seizure alert dogs have higher energy levels because that trait contributes to their hyperalert state and ability to respond to stimulus.  Most other types of service dogs: mobility dogs, guide dogs, psychological service dogs, will need to have lower energy levels to enable them to work calmly and without getting distracted in a variety of public situations.
 
Dogs that are very high drive, and/or have very high energy levels generally are not suitable for working service dogs because the handler will need to be constantly containing and restraining them, resulting in a frustrating situation for all concerned.  Part of making an appropriate match between handler and dog is to match their energy levels.  A very high energy handler will not be happy with a low energy level dog, and a low energy handler will be irritated by a high energy level dog.
 
The dog will be constantly present in the life of the human partner, both working in public, and at home.  A very high energy level dog around the house tends to be very busy, and needs a great deal of activity and mental stimulation.  This can become irritating and difficult for the human partner to live with, particularly if their disability(ies) complicates their mobility and/or includes components of anxiety.

The International Association of Assistance Dog Partners website has extensive information on selection of the right dog for service dog work.  To see this, go to: 
If you are a person visiting this site who has information, comments, stories, opinions or other input on this topic that would be helpful and could be included on the Comments and Input page for this topic, please email:

Education and Support for People and Service Dogs