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Where to Find a Service Dog Candidate

assessing potential service dog candidate

With the low success rate of owner-trained service dogs, finding a quality service dog that will be keen and able to work for you for years to come is the starting point for success. Sadly, many people waste time, money and emotional energy on an unsuitable dog, only to have to start over. And what to do with the unsuitable partially trained dog? It’s another headache! You can increase your chances by getting your dog from a reputable location, from someone who cares about the dog’s well-being and a good outcome for you both.

Where to Find a Quality Puppy

Breed Clubs (Kennel Clubs)

Once you’ve created a list of potential breeds you are interested in, look up breed clubs on the internet. See what membership as a breeder requires and make sure the breeders you talk to follow those guidelines. Look for breeders in your area and have a look at their websites. (Be aware that just because a dog is registered with a kennel club does not mean it is healthy or a good temperament or that is meets breed standards.) 

Dog Shows  (Conformation and Obedience)

Most larger communities have a pure bred dog show once a year. Visit them and look at all the breeds of interest. This is a good time to find out typical size, coat and temperament of each breed as well as how much they vary. Ask them what the pros, cones and health issues of the breed. Collect business cards from the various breeders you talk to.  Find out when they have litters coming. Ask them to refer to others if they don’t have litters planned in the near future. Go home and research them on the internet.  Here is a list of breeders that do health checks on their dogs

Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Visit dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn’t ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. 

Purpose Bred Mixed-Breeds

People who are carefully mixing two pure breeds to create good family pets, sport dogs or even service dogs are another possibility. Very recently, they are breeding programs that are specifically using outcrosses (different breeds) to reduce or eliminate known health issues in one breed. Cavaliers with Goldens, German-shorthair pointers with Dalmatians Low Uric Acid or LUA) are two such mixes. Many service dog programs are breeding golden retrievers with labradors to produce biddable working dogs with an appropriate energy level for assistance dog work. Use the same criterion as you do for purebred dogs with temperament and health testing being the first thing to look at. 
 

A BIG TIP: 

If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from and visit the puppies at least once before you bring yours home. That way you see for yourself the environment the pup is coming from and can ask questions and get to know the breeder before challenges pop up.

Also, a breeder’s interpretation of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things. Their definition of ‘sensitive’, ‘calm’ or ‘low exercise needs’ may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them.  A good rule of thumb is if you would like to take home the parent dog, then the lines the pups come from are probably the right one for you!

Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you.  Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight.  This may limit you to pups that are within a day’s drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set him back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.  

Places to Avoid Getting a Service Dog Puppy:

These may been obvious but some owner-trained  dogs come from these places since the owner didn’t know better at the time. These pups have unknown health and temperament histories so are not a good choice for sourcing a service dog.

  • Pet store
  • Gas station
  • Flea market
  • A neighbour’s dog bred to another neighbour’s dog
  • A pair of working farm dogs who were bred and raised puppies in the barn
  • A puppy broker (Brings a litter from a far away place without the mother and sells the pups as fast as they can or who gives a pregnant female to stay at home mothers to whelp and raise, then the broker sells the pups).
  • A breeder who mass produces puppies of many breeds or mixes (called a ‘puppy mill’ as they do it only for money)
  • A breeder who won’t let you see where the puppies and mother live
  • A breeder who asks few questions of you and happily takes your money
  • A breeder whose dogs are overpriced for the breed without reasonable justification
  • A shelter dog who has just come in or who is threatened with euthanasia
  • A dog imported from another country who you have never seen

While many of these dogs will make reasonable pets (depending on the family’s lifestyle), their lack of history combined with unknown rearing situation makes them poor choices as a service dog.

Where to Get Quality Adult Dogs

1). Family, friends and neighbors. You best bet is to get a good dog from a known source before it gets re-homed or given to a shelter or rescue organization. This way you know the dog’s social and behavioral history and perhaps who the breeder was.

2). A re-homed dog by an unknown person. A dog still in its first home may be an option if you are good at evaluating people and their motives. Ask many questions. Read between the lines of their answers. What are they not saying?  If there is any pressure to adopt (like time deadlines) this is probably not the dog for you.

3). Guide and service dog programs: A dog that has been removed from a program may make a good assistance dog, depending on what it has been removed for. 

4). A reputable breeder may need to re-home a dog if it doesn’t turn out to be as successful as hoped in the show ring or has been retired as a champion. They may also have breeder available that only had one litter and they decided not to breed it for some reason. They may occasionally have adult dogs returned to them for a variety of reasons from illness or death of the owner and other unforeseen circumstances that has nothing to do with the dog. A dog up to 5 years of age may be suitable for small to medium breeds, especially if they already have significant training. For larger breeds that don’t live as long you want a dog up to about 3 years old to maximize the working life of the dog.  The great thing is that the dog’s health and social and behavioral history will be known and many of your questions will be able to be answered. 

5). Breed-specific Rescues who foster dogs in homes of volunteers. These may be responsible breeders who are taking on dogs of the same breed that are not their own or they may be volunteers who are interested in supporting dogs in need of a specific breed.

6). Dogs that have been fostered for a long period of time in a home environment (at least one month) and the foster families have had a chance to see the dog interact in public. They may be pure or mixed breeds.

7). Prison programs train shelter dogs the basic behaviours and get to know them over a period of time.

General Pointers

Ask if you can take the dog on a trial period for up to three months to see if the dog might make a good candidate. It can take several months to see the dog’s true temperament come out in a new environment and to develop a bond. Most dogs don’t generalize behaviours easily (both good and bad) to new environments so this is why we often see unwanted behaviours take awhile to resurface. If the environment changes, the behavior changes. If the environment provides a situation similar to when the unwanted behaviours appeared, then the behaviour will likely reappear.

Here is a Gosling Dog Personality Questionnaire to have the dog’s current primary caregiver fill out honestly. This will give you an idea of the level of impulse control the dog has. I suggest printing a copy of the pdf version and give to the dog’s primary caregiver. Ideally have them fill it out but even if you ask them the questions, it will provide some useful information about the dog’s behavior. 

One other key piece of information to get (if you can) is who the adult dog’s primary caregiver was. (Female, male, adult, senior etc). This is important since some dogs will bond more quickly and easily to a person of the same sex or age as their previous caregiver. Some dogs will not bond with or be willing to work for a person that does not fit that description or at the very least it can take a long time to do so.

Where to Avoid Getting a Dog

Knowing where to avoid getting a dog can be just as important as where to get one. There are people everywhere who breed to take your money. They don’t care about the health or temperament of the dogs they sell. There are scammers who sell non-existent dogs. Make no mistake, selling dogs is big money-especially for the designer breeds!

Be wary of people rehoming their dogs on internet classified ads. They often will omit key information and their interpretation of what makes a good assistance or service dog and what actually does, may be two different things. They may just want to foist a dog off on you so you take responsibility for it (not their problem anymore and they don’t care what imposition it is on you). It also sounds better to friends and family when they re-home a dog to a working dog home. 

Avoid puppies or dogs who were raised in or spend considerable time outdoors in kennels, yards, barns or on tie outs etc. These dogs have not developed enough people social skills or exposed to enough human-related activity, sounds and objects to easily be able to transition to lives with public access.

Avoid dogs that have not been socialized to kids, teens, seniors, other animals, small animals such as other small dogs, rabbits, cats etc. unless they have a very gentle temperament. If the dog already has history of chasing other animals, rule it out.

Avoid dogs that were sick as a puppy. If they survive Parvo or other gastrointestinal disease, this is not the dog for you. If the pup had to be bottle fed from early on or didn’t thrive well. You are looking for a dog that had a healthy and functional start to life. Having these conditioned early on usually lead to health and anxiety later on. Research shows the connection between a poor functioning gut and the brain.

While some shelters and rescue organizations have excellent programs to identify potential service dogs, many have no knowledge of what characteristics are needed. Some are just desperate to get the dogs out of the shelter and into a home. A dog in a shelter behaves very differently than one in a home or in public. A shelter is a very stressful place. Think of how your behaviour is different in a class with 100 other people than when you are at home.  This is not to say you can’t find a potential candidate in a shelter, it is just not very likely and you must be willing to take a huge risk and bring in expert help to find that dog. Refer to the service dog success statistics cited in the introduction of the lecture.  Make sure the shelter will allow you to return the dog for up to 6 mos in case s/he turns out to have health or behavioral issues that will impact his/her ability as a service dog. Of course, with shelter dogs, there is usually no access to health history of the parents so health testing of the dog’s hips, elbows and other health issues etc at the appropriate age (typically around 2 yo) is the only way to know how healthy a dog actually is. For example, a vet cannot tell if a dog has hip displaysia or not just by looking. A proper X-ray from a specific angle is needed. 

You can eliminate shelters and rescues that do not assess the dogs before adopting them out.  
Also, in low volume shelters it may take a very long time to see a potential candidate come through. 

Here is a link to an article that compares reputable vs bad rescue organizations (brokers or McRescues).  

Avoid dogs from isolated settlements, former street dogs and dogs rescued from meat farms as they lack the early positive socialization to humans and changing environments needed to the outside world. They often have an underlying fear of humans, of being confined on leash and may be reactive to sounds and movement. 

Avoid dogs being brought in from other countries. Whether street dogs or meat dogs, little is known about these dogs (pure or mixed breeds) and it is a huge risk to think one will work out as a service dog. Some of these dogs will be street dogs and skittish at best. That cannot be trained out of them, nor loved out of them. They have not had sufficient positive socialization to people within the narrow socialization window. Typically you will only get to see a photo of the dog before you receive him. Many of these dogs have had no health testing or temperament testing. Being seen by a general veterinarian and getting vaccinated tells you nothing about his physical suitability for the job or overall health unless specific blood tests and X-rays are done (such as for hip dysplasia, etc).

Avoid dogs that have been spayed or neutered at a young age (weeks to months old). Many breeds (Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs and others) may be negatively affected when they are spayed under 18 mos or neutered under a year when their hormonal system that regulates their metabolism and growth is removed. Effects can be both on behaviour and health/structure. 

Here is a long term study by UC Davis in 2020 that looks at 35 breeds and recommendations of the age that each breed can be safely spayed and neutered. 

Take a look at the simplified chart

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Wondering how to train your own service dog?

Check out our Service Dog Training Institute classes (for both human and dog).
If you want to learn how to train a service dog like a professional, these classes will give you the skills to do so and to train other pet dogs! You learn as your dog learns.

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