What Makes a Good Service Dog?
If you want your dog to accompany you in public to mitigate your disabilities, your dog needs to have a sound temperament, be in good physical shape, and be an appropriate size for the tasks you are requesting. The dog must be calm but enjoy working with you. The dog MUST have been well-socialized to people, other dogs, animals and all environments you plan to go as a working dog. Basically, having a calm dog with solid behavior in public is the foundation of any dog used as a service dog for public access. The hardest (and most time-consuming) part of training a service dog is getting them to the “good community member” stage so choosing the right dog is key. Task-specific training to mitigate your disabilities is usually the easiest part and is done near the end of training. That is so you have a chance to evaluate your dog in different situations, he has a chance to mature physically, socially and emotionally, and is through any fear periods.
If you choose breeds that are people-oriented (as opposed to aloof to strangers or protective) you will have a wider margin of error if you cannot get out and socialize the pup during the critical period. If you choose a breed that is less people-oriented, you will have less margin of error and needs to take the effort to highly socialize the pup to people. One person who chose an Akita (a guarding breed known to be wary of strangers), took the pup out daily and heavily socialized the pup at grocery store entrances where the pup saw heard and interacted with a hundred of people in an hour (but was careful not to overwhelm to pup). As an adult, this dog is neutral to mildly accepting of strangers at best. Had she not taken the time, the dog would not have been as accepting of the public. If this person is in need of emergency help from ambulance staff, she should have no problem. Another person who was not so diligent may be dealing with a protective dog. In some breeds, there is a difference between the how long the lines live. In labs, there used to be a huge difference. Some lines were old at 7-8 years while others lived much longer to 12 to 14 years. The longer the dog lives, the longer his working life is going to be. Consider that. Males of most breeds are typically up to 25% larger than females so if you need a larger dog, males might fit the bill without having to go up to a much larger breed.
Avoid bias against males as they will be trained to pee on cue right from the start so marking (lifting their legs) shouldn’t be an issue. Wait until the dog is physically mature to neuter so his bone plates have stopped growing and the dog will have the breed standard bone structure, rather than longer, thinner legs that early neutered males often get. Breeds of extreme size (at either end of the scale) have shorter lifespans and therefore working life. Larger breeds cost more for food and equipment, smaller breeds cost more for operations.
Avoid short-nosed dogs as most have health or structural problems of their own, have poor sense of smell, trouble getting rid of heat etc Choose the individual, not the breed or mix. There are always exceptions to every breed standard. Look closely at the individual to see if he meets your needs and expectations. There are calm dogs among high drive breeds and high drive dogs amongst calm breeds and dogs somewhere in the middle.
Breeds to Consider Carefully
Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breeds you are considering. Local breed-specific laws that may affect how your service dog is treated. Some areas have an outright ban on specific breeds so your dog could be taken away from you. Protective breeds and guarding breeds are also ones to carefully consider. Protective breeds may not allow a paramedic or other emergency health care staff to approach or examine you or safe-keep your property. Bias against and fears of such breeds are common. You will have to take the time to heavily socialize your pup to prevent any breed tendencies towards aloofness or protectiveness.
Your service dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, co-workers and managers interact with you. A friend noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retired her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. She was actually a very people social dog but people’s perspectives do affect their interactions.
If you get an unusual breed or mix or even a striking looking dog, you will be stopped frequently to be asked “What kind of dog is that?” which you may or may not be comfortable of have time to do.
Here’s an infographic that summarizes some generalizations about breeds.
(Copyright Marvellous Mutts)
Age of Dog
Get a younger pup (ideally 8.5 weeks) or an older adolescent (16 mos to 2 years). If you get a pup at 16 weeks, you have no time to socialize the pup to your specific environment that he will be working in. Only consider a pup of this age if the breeder or home environment the pup has come from has completed extensive socialization and environmental enrichment with the pup that match your situation. Do NOT take a pup from a shed, kennel or barn situation at 12 weeks or more. This pup will show fear of strangers later on in it’s life. (Coppinger & Coppinger)
At about 6 to 7 months until about 14 mos in most breeds, puppies go through another fear period and this is NOT a good time for a puppy to be rehomed. If the puppy shows fear you will not know whether this is due to temperament issues or just part of the fear period which will pass. Avoid dogs that are older than 4 years of age. Their working life will likely be too short for the time and energy you will put ion him.