The first step in selecting a potential service dog in training is to decide what whether you plan to buy a purebred puppy from a reputable breeder, or adopt a rescue dog.
I’ll cover just purebred puppies in this post, and tackle rescue dogs in the next post.
Determining what breed will best fit your individual service dog needs is complicated and best determined with professional advice. Find a trainer who has a wide range of experience with different breeds and knows the breed traits of all or most of the AKC breeds. Not all trainers have this type of experience, so make sure to ask if this is a specialty of the trainer’s. A trainer who shows their dogs in conformation can be a good resource, because they spend time around all the breeds on a regular basis.
While you’re locating a trainer with extensive breed knowledge, there are some things you can do to begin the research process on your own. Here is some basic information, followed by some questions to ask yourself:
There are seven groups of dogs registered with the American Kennel Club, and each of these groups was originally created and bred for specific jobs.
The Working dog group includes breeds that were bred to perform jobs like guarding property, pulling sleds and rescue work. Most of the dogs in this group are large breed dogs.
The Herding group is, as its name implies, comprised of breeds who are naturally able to control the movements of other animals – usually livestock. The group includes a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and coat types.
The Sporting group is made up of Pointers, Retrievers, Setters and Spaniels, all bred for different, but related jobs in the woods and the water for hunting and other field sports.
The Non-Sporting group is the most diverse of the seven groups. These breeds vary widely in terms of appearance and personalities, and were grouped together because of the unique and often obsolete nature of their jobs.
Dogs in the Terrier group were all bred to hunt and kill vermin and are often known for a lot of feistiness and a bit of attitude. This attitude can cause them to be a little tougher to convince to roll with the punches in novel public situations.
The Hound group is made up of dogs used for hunting purposes, and is divided into scent hounds and sight hounds. These dogs enjoy following a scent trail or a moving object and are often a challenge to keep nearby without leashes and fences.
The Toy group was bred for lap-sized companionship. All of the breeds in this group are small, and many of them are not as geared toward a working mindset as breeds in the other groups.
Breeds in some of these groups are more likely fits for service dog work than others. The Sporting group contains quite a few appropriate service dog breeds. The Herding and Working groups also have some good choices for certain types of service dog work. There are possibilities in all the groups for just the right owner, right dog, and right job, but many of the breeds are less likely to enjoy and excel at service dog work. Selecting a dog whose natural traits make service dog work a less likely fit can double the amount of time and effort to train the dog for public access and increases the risk of having to release the dog from training due to unsuitability.
When choosing a breed that’s right for you, start with your personal likes and dislikes. Do you have a strong aversion to drooling or shedding? Do you have any sensory issues that make a short or long coat more enjoyable or specifically aversive to you? Do you find comfort in rubbing big floppy ears or find it stress relieving to spend an hour brushing out a long plush dog coat?
Next, consider your abilities and limitations. If you rent an apartment, a large breed may not be practical for you. If you have a mobility based disability, a very active breed may be difficult for you to train. If you’ve only raised a few dogs in your lifetime, a particularly bright or active dog may prove to be a bigger challenge than you’re prepared for. How do you feel about living with a large dog or a small dog? What size dog feels most comfortable to you?
Next, consider what job the dog will be doing. Larger, slower moving, biddable dogs often make good mobility dogs. Medical and hearing alert dogs should be active, life-of-the-party, nosy dogs who love to be on duty. Smaller breeds are often good for these jobs. And psychiatric dogs should be solid as a rock and unflappable. Consider also how complex and extensive the tasks you need will be. If you need numerous tasks of different natures due to multiple diagnoses, you’ll want a dog who loves to work. But if you need just one specific task that is not particularly complicated, you may want a breed that is more laid back and easy to get ready for public access. A good trainer can help you sort through these needs and choices.
To start looking at breeds, the most efficient and enjoyable way is to watch the Westminster Kennel Club show on TV. All 7 groups, with one example of each breed (The Best of Breed winner) is aired every February. This year, the show will be on February 12 and 13, 2018. It runs for six hours – three on Monday night and Tuesday night, with the airings often repeating on Tuesday and Wednesday morning. If it’s nowhere close to February and you’re starting to look, you should be able to find all the groups individually on YouTube.
Look at the breeds, but also listen to the descriptions accompanying them. Look for physical characteristics that appeal to you and listen for traits that will or won’t be suitable for service dog work.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is selecting a breed that has been bred for guard work and has a guarding nature. The majority of the work necessary to produce a service dog is about producing a rock solid dog for public access who shows no fear, aggression or reactivity in public. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and is one of the reasons selecting the right breed and the right puppy or dog is so important.
Consider the general friendliness of a breed when making your choices. A dog with a guard mentality is never the right choice for service dog work.
Once you find some breeds you’d like to consider, and you locate a trainer who can advise you on breed characteristics, you’re ready to select a breed and go to work finding the right dog. Choosing more than one breed can open up more doors for you and help you find the right dog more quickly.
If you don’t find a breed expert in your local training community, consider looking outside your area. This is a specialty area that is less common than training experience. You’ll still need someone local to help you pick just the right individual dog and to help you train the dog, but the person who helps you decide on the right breed does not need to be local.