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Finding the Perfect Owner-Trained Service Dog for PTSD, Anxiety, and Autism

Dog with EMT handlers.

A common question we get, often after a team has failed, is what to look for and what to avoid in a future service dog for PTSD, Anxiety, and Autism. There are some characteristics that are particularly important, in addition to all the other characteristics that are needed for service dogs.  

The Ideal Temperament

First things first, let’s talk about personality. The perfect service dog for these conditions should be:

  1. Calm and steady: A zen-like demeanor is crucial for helping their human stay grounded.
  2. One that is not sensitive to the handler’s emotions. Aloof or indifferent is a good way to describe these dogs. They are not highly empathetic. They have few mirror neurons. Sensitive dogs often mimic or reflect the handler’s anxious responses. These dogs will either become anxious themselves or act out by barking, jumping. A dog with this emotional response will not be helpful in public places.
    Here is one study:  Evaluation of mediating and moderating effects on the relationship between owners’ and dogs’ anxiety
  3. Highly trainable: These pups need to be quick learners and eager to please.
  4. Ability to withstand frustration.
  5. Gentle and patient: They should be able to handle unexpected situations without getting stressed.
  6. Attentive: A good service dog needs to be tuned in to their person’s needs without mimicking their emotions.
  7. Adaptable: From quiet homes to busy streets, these dogs should roll with the punches.
  8. Unaffected by emotional outbursts (high pitched sounds like crying, fast movements, etc.) 

Size Matters (Sometimes)

When it comes to size, it’s not one-size-fits-all. However, medium to large breeds often work well because they can:

  • Provide physical support if needed
  • Have a calming presence
  • Be easily visible in public spaces
  • A dog that is emotionally healthy and has not been traumatized or exposed to trauma.

Age

Starting with an adult dog, the service dog portion of training can begin sooner so you have a functioning team sooner. 

Generally, dogs over 18 months to 2 years are considered suitable. Some individuals need more time to mature.

It is recommended that the dog be an adult when starting to live with the handler, especially for owner-trained. Puppies and adolescents are still in development phase and need to be in a stable emotional, social and physical environment during their developmental stages. Exposing a pup to anxiety and potential trauma when they are in a vulnerable stage may result in a dog that does not develop the skills to and cannot cope with his own anxiety or trauma, never mind the handler’s. 

For Autism for children, we also recommend starting with an adult dog. Adolescence can be a tough time for dog sand children to interact as the dog learns about his body and how to move it in space. Children don’t understand why the dog is so mouthy, boisterous etc and may become afraid of the growing dog. Taking on the raising and training of a puppy for families with children that already have complex needs is often too much for the time, energy, resources and support they have.

Breeds to Consider

While any dog with the right temperament can potentially be a service dog, some breeds that often excel in this role include:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Poodles (Standard and Moyen)
  • Newfoundlands
  • Great Dane
  • Beagle
  • Bichon Frise
  • Mixes of the above breeds

Look for a breeder who breeds for health and temperament. Generally conformation lines work well for purebred dogs as field and sport lines can be too active and have higher mental and physical exercise needs.

Why Avoid Herding and Protection Breeds?

Now, you might be wondering why we’re suggesting steering clear of herding and protection breeds. Here’s the scoop:

  1. High energy: These breeds often have tons of energy, which can be overwhelming for someone with anxiety or autism.
  2. Strong instincts: Their ingrained desire to herd or protect can sometimes override their training in stressful situations.
  3. Alertness: While being alert is good, these breeds can be hyper-vigilant, potentially increasing anxiety in their handlers.
  4. Intensity: Their intense focus and drive, while great for their original purposes, can be too much in a service dog role.
  5. Sensitivity: They are usually sensitive dogs. This is not helpful for anxiety, PTSD or autism as their sensitivity may contribute to reactivity. A service dog is trying to counter those emotions in their handler, not contribute to them.
  6. In general, these breeds are very conscious of personal space and are not cuddly so it’s hard to get them to want to do deep pressure therapy.

That’s not to say these breeds can never be service dogs, but individuals with the required characteristics and resiliency are few and far between. Training cannot change temperament and they may not be the best fit for everyone.

The Bottom Line

Remember, every dog is an individual, and the most important thing is finding a pup whose personality meshes well with yours. A calm, gentle, and somewhat aloof dog who’s eager to learn and help is your best bet for a service dog to assist with PTSD, anxiety, and autism.

If you’re considering getting a service dog, it’s always a good idea to work with a professional local trainer or organization that specializes in service dog training. They can help you find and train the perfect furry companion to support you in your daily life.

Here’s to finding your perfect canine service dog partner – partner in calm! 

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