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Donna Hill's

Service Dog Training Institute


Choosing a Service Dog:
Identifying What You Need
(Part 1)

A beagle service dog settles to wait at a hospital

Asking your self some questions will help clarify what your needs are when it comes to choosing a service dog. This series of 5 blog posts (46 questions) will help you to examine your lifestyle and needs realistically. There is a checklist for you to fill out so you have a summary of your answers.

The characteristics that come out of it should help you to narrow down the choice of breeds and characteristics of individual dogs that you can then look at as a service dog candidate.  

Assistance Dog Needs Assessment Checklist

This checklist will provide details about what characteristics your service dog will need to have.

It is interactive which means you can save it to your computer and type in your own details.

Place an X any of the lines that apply and fill in the information as it applies to you. This checklist will help you to determine the characteristics you need in a service dog. Keep in mind, that you are looking for a dog that will be able to be used in public and be unobtrusive except when needed.

Below is an explanation of each line of the checklist. The one thing about any breed and individual dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle and energy levels. If a dog doesn’t fit into your life, it won’t work overall.

1. Tasks you require.

Go through the tasks lists and make a list of all tasks you need your dog to do for you now or in the future.

Service Dog Tasks

2. What natural skills your dog will need?

There are breed tendencies that are genetic. Some examples are retrieving, bracing, blocking, scenting, herding. Your training job will be easier of you consider dogs that have a natural ability to do the tasks you need them to regularly do. Keep in mind that for an anxiety alert, you DO NOT want an emotionally sensitive dog. That dog will spiral down with you in your anxiety or may become protective if it is from a protection breed. Choose a dog that is neutral on the emotional sensitivity scale and level-headed.

3. What other plans to do have for the dog?

Some people enjoy doing dogs sports such as agility or freestyle to keep the dog in shape and engaged. Others enjoy competition obedience while others like skijoring. While these activities keep the dog’s mind busy, they do not really challenge the dog’s exercise needs once they have been taught. Can you really keep up with an active dog? Please avoid choosing a dog that will “push” you to do more exercise (for example if you don’t like walking or exercising). In our years of experience with owner-trained service dog, that rarely works and the dog’s exercise needs do not get met. This usually results in a frustrated dog with energy to burn and nowhere to outlet it.

4. Consider how your income may affect the dog you choose.

If you have a limited income, this may be a very important point. The initial purchase price is small compared to ongoing costs like feeding, grooming, equipment etc. Larger dogs eat more, non-shedding dogs require regular clipping by a groomer. Long-haired dogs may need to be groomed twice a year. Extra large dogs have a shorter working life so less return on your investment. Veterinary costs are the same for small dogs as large ones.

If costs are an issue, always keep them in mind or be creative in how you get around such costs. Is there insurance you can get? Can you do fundraising? Can you trade services and skills with other people?

5. Where you live may affect your choice of dog.

A large, very active dog or barky dog in an apartment usually does not work well. A small dog with a small or slow-developing bladder doesn’t work well with elevators or long flights of stairs. A small dog among large horses on an acreage may not be a good idea.

6. Who is living with you? Do you live alone or with others?

If children or seniors are involved, breed selection becomes more important. Some dogs do not tolerate children, even if they are raised with them. The dog needs to be comfortable at home as this is his time to recover from work. Choose tolerant sturdy breeds on small to medium size. Avoid tiny breeds and extra large ones. Well-bred bichons or conformation beagles do well for both kids and seniors.

7. Are there other animals in your home or yard?

If so what are they? Some breeds have a hard time adapting to living with other animals while adult dogs may not adjust to such animals if they were not socialized to them when they were young.

8. Do you have another dog at home that is fearful?

Since dogs are social learners, and puppies learn from adult dogs, you are setting your service dog pup to fail if you raise it with that dog with the expectation the puppy will become bombproof. If any public training is done in the presence of the fearful dog, the pup observes it. Dogs emulate other dogs for functional behaviors and dysfunctional behaviors. You have no way to predict what behaviors your pup or young dog will copy.

You may need to consider rehoming your current fearful dog to a family member or friend if you are serious about training your own service dog. If you adopt a solid tempered adult dog as your candidate, you might be able to manage the situation so the adult dog does not see your fearful dog react. Hopefully, his own temperament is set enough that he doesn’t learn any unwanted fears or undesirable behaviors from the fearful dog.

9. How much travel do you do?

If you do much, the breed must be comfortable with strangers, loud noises, constant changes and small spaces. A medium-sized dog tends to be ideal for long distance air travel for example.

10. Is it local travel via car, bus or subway or is it further afield via plane?

Size and look of the dog may be an important consideration for other people if you are crammed into small spaces with them for long periods. People have breed bias and breed fears. Do you want to deal with that on a daily basis?

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