Choosing a Dog
Training a Service Dog is a lot of work and a big committment. Choosing an appropriate dog is the most important step. Be Patient.
Don't be tempted to "save" a dog that has behavior or health problems, especially a history of abuse or neglect. If you are serious about training a service dog, this is not the time to rescue a dog with problems. Important temperament traits to look at:
- Confident vs. Timid -- the dog should show a casual interest in new experiences, other dogs, and new people.
- Secure vs. Insecure -- Service dogs must be able to tolerate a lot of stressful situations.
- Calm vs. Frenetic -- "over the top" energy is difficult to control and train through.
- Gentle vs. Rough
- People-Centered vs. Environment-Centered -- Service dogs should be people-pleasers.
- Attentive vs. Distracted -- The dog should mostly be paying attention to you, not what is going on everywhere else.
- Dependent vs. Independent -- A service dog needs to look to its handler for direction.
- Needy vs. Aloof -- Is the dog always looking away from you? Not interested?
Some dogs show very strong breed characteristics, and it can be difficult or impossible to change them. Consider what a dog was bred to do -- Herd sheep? Kill rats? Track game with their noses? Pull sleds? How does that relate to what you want to train the dog to do?
The most consistent breeds for service work are Labrador Retrievers & Golden Retrievers. These breeds are people-centered, bred to follow directions (easily trainable), friendly, and tolerant. They are widely recognized and accepted as service dogs.
Other breeds can be suitable, but please consult with us first. Do not choose a breed because it is popular at the moment.
Service dogs cannot pose any kind of threat, so do not choose a breed that was bred for guarding or protection work. Their breed characteristics are for high energy and high drive. If you have PTSD or anxiety, the dog will pick up your anxiety and start reacting to strangers with guarding behaviors, whether justified or not. It is difficult to control how strangers, especially children, will approach or touch your dog, so it is imperative that the dog you choose is tolerant and passive in the face of these encounters.
A note about Pit Bull types (American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Pit mixes) -- We do not recommend these breeds for service dog training for several reasons: 1). Terrier breeds can difficult to train for service work if the dog has the typical independent terrier temperament. Do not assume that the dog you choose will be the exception; 2). Pit types can be genetically dog aggressive, and this may not show in the dog's temperament until it becomes an adult. If this develops after you have invested a year in training, you will not be able to use the dog in public; 3). You are training a service dog to help make your life better, not more difficult by facing municipal breed specific legislation, breed bans in rental housing, additional insurance costs, and public access challenges.
Training a service dog will require a commitment of time, energy, and money. All dogs are individuals, but do not assume that the individual dog you choose will be the exception to genetic breed characteristics, or that you can just "train it out of him." Choosing a breed with the genetic temperament for service work will greatly affect your success. You must decide what is more important to you -- having a service dog to help you, or having a particular breed because you like the way they look / had one as a child / want to be a breed advocate.
The Right Size for the Job
Small dogs or toy breeds are rarely appropriate for service work (with the exception of hearing and diabetic alert, as long as the dog has the appropriate temperament and confidence). A small Yorkie cannot retrieve your shoes. Most terriers won't want to bring your shoes (but he may tear them to pieces). Pugs, bulldogs, & other short nosed breeds cannot tolerate hot weather and are not appropriate for retrieving. If you have a bad back, you're going to have to bend over to deal with your little bitty dog. Small dogs can be trip hazards, especially if you have mobility issues.
Small dogs can also be easily overwhelmed when taken out in public. Small dog "attitude" -- barking, growling, snapping -- is a sign of fear, not protectiveness. Shaking (shivering) is also fear. The smaller the dog, the more vulnerable it is to being injured while working in public.
A service dog must be trained to do work or perform tasks that mitigate your disability. Keeping you company or providing comfort is not a service dog task, and is not covered by the ADA. The dog must be an appropriate size to do the tasks that you need assistance with.
The parent's behavior/temperament and the puppy's early socialization (birth to 6 weeks) are extremely important. Avoid getting a puppy if you don't know its background, including meeting both of its parents. If you do find a suitable puppy from a reputable breeder, it can start training as early as 8 weeks. Puppies started early learn faster and have better behavior as adults.
Dogs generally show their adult temperaments between the ages of 1-1.5 years.
Be aware that dogs experience adolescence the same as humans do -- they become inconsistent teenagers. This can last from the ages of 1-3 years. Usually this is the most frustrating time period for owners, because the dog can perform perfectly one day, and ignore you the next day. As their self-confidence increases, they can become more territorial & reactive. Patience & consistent training are really important.
Service dog training requires a significant investment of time, energy, and money. The younger the dog you start with, the longer amount of time you will have with him as a well-trained service partner. Also keep in mind that a dog's senior years are the last 25% of his expected lifespan - starting between the ages of 6 and 10 years, depending on the breed and size of the dog. Just as in humans, this is when degenerative issues with joints, teeth, eyesight, hearing, and cognition begin to be felt. Dogs are good at hiding their aging issues, so we must make decisions about whether it is appropriate to expect a dog to begin a new career as a service dog when he is approaching his senior years.