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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


Assessing a Potential Service Dog Candidate

assessing a dog's potential as service dog -golden retriever

Assessing a dog for its potential as a service dog is not easy. There are very few tests to use, and according to research, most of them do not predict a puppy or dog’s success as a service dog. Anecdotally, the assessor’s experience with dogs has the most impact on the success of the prediction.

One Reliable Dog Assessment Test

One of the more reliable tests that has so far stood up under repetitious research is based on the dog’s response to environmental stimuli. It is called the ‘CARATClothier Animal Response Assessment Tool and was designed by Suzanne Clothier. It is not so much a temperament test as it is a way to “categorize(s) behavior traits in multiple components that are intuitive and practical”. 

If you happen to be lucky to live near a CARAT evaluator, it is worthwhile to pay the cost of having them evaluate a potential puppy or dog. Best to rule out an unsuitable candidate sooner than later.

Other so called ‘temperament tests’ are only good for that moment in time when a pup is tested, since dog temperament and learning is affected so much by the environment he lives in and he is shaped by experience. The tests done when the puppies are still with the litter (see the Selection of a Reputable Breeder blog) are especially non-predictive of future temperament according to research, even if they are done by knowledgeable experienced people. If the tests are used, they must be reassessed periodically to see how the pup has changed. Even just simple learning can significantly change the outcome in a few days time.

What the test WILL do is to help you rule out dogs as candidates as they will show undesirable behaviours such as fear or aggression. If any of these appear, stop testing as the dog is not a suitable candidate and the tester risks getting hurt.  

The more simple temperament tests start to have more ability to predict the future adult dog if they are done at 18 months, once the dog’s temperament is set for life. 

If you are considering a dog that is far away from you, definitely hire an unbiased dog professional to check out the dog, and the seller, adopter as well as the environment the dog is in.  Whether you or someone else interacts with the dogs, video tape the interactions and take notes about the interactions to refer to later. You’ll get a different perspective (more enlightening) from the video than you do in person. It’s more objective.

Knowing how to read dog body language will help significantly.

Donna offers an online self-study class 
Dog as a Second Language” through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration is open at any time for this class. 

Other Ideas for Evaluators

If you do not have a CARAT assessor in your area, look for an experienced service dog trainer, reputable breeder, or certified veterinary behaviorist and hire them to assess the litter and pup or dog you are considering. It will be worth the money! A third party who is not emotionally involved may see what you miss.

You will need to share with them what exactly you are looking for and you need to know enough about the process so you don’t get mis-directed.

Educate Yourself

In order to educate yourself, here are two helpful videos. Worst-case scenario, have  a dog-knowledgeable friend watch these videos with you and take him or her with you to assess the dog you are considering.  The key is to be open to the fact that there may not be a suitable puppy in that litter or you may have to wait for awhile for a suitable dog to evaluate. How long depends on the population where you live and what breeds are most common.

Assessing Dogs for a Career as a Service Dog (1 hour 19 minutes video)

This video includes as preliminary test for a shelter dog. Keep in mind one organization in California screened over 350 shelter dogs from one shelter to find a potential suitable candidate as a hearing dog.

Here’s another good video on assessing service dog candidates:

At this point, you might be remembering a rescue or shelter dog that was celebrated in the news or that a relatives friends had as a “rags to riches” story. People like to celebrate successes but keep quiet on failures. There are far more failures with rescue and shelter dogs than there are with purpose-bred dogs. It’s great for the dog to get the training but not great for a handler with a disability who doesn’t have much energy, time, emotional capacity  or money to invest in a dog that fails.

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