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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.