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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 Canine Good Neighbour test run by the CKC and AKC is a good way to determine if your dog might have the BASIC start on training needed to start training as a service dog in public. Much more detailed training is needed as is task-specific training to mitigate your disabilities.

Creating a Good Service Dog

This process starts when the working dogs are tiny puppies. You must start with genetically sound pups, raise them in the correct environment needed as an adult (in the home with people, movement, common sounds, and objects) as this allows behavioural expression of genetics (phenotypes and epigenetic) to occur so the dog exhibits behaviours of good service dogs. “Raising puppies, and especially raising them for special jobs as adults requires attention to detail.” Dr. Ray Coppinger.   This means a continuous training plan for each individual puppy right from the start.

The first few weeks of life, a puppy is "growing its brain” by creating cell connections that tell him who and what is friend or foe. The cell connections are created by what is in their immediate environment. If the environment is barren, fewer connections are made. Environmental enrichment is key to a good start for service puppies. Ideally, a breeder will encourage you to be involved in puppy raising from 5 weeks onwards (distance may be a factor). This will help with bonding as puppies bond quickly and easily when under 7 weeks.

Since puppies use predominantly their sense of smell to learn about the world, and their noses are able to distinguish between scents from before they are born, it makes sense to use this knowledge to start a bond with your pup as soon as possible. Bonds that are formed early in life (the first few weeks) form quickly and strongly.  Leaving a T-shirt or PJs with the litter, regular visits with the pups and also sleeping with the pup for the first few weeks you bring him home help with the bond. Obviously if there is medical limitations, this may not be possible, but having the pup close will help the bond form.  

Here is a live webinar Service Dog Training Institute presented at a Dog Training Conference. Highlights things you can do to increase your chance of success. About one hour 5 minutes long.

Breed Choice

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. 

Service Dog Breed Chart

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. 

Key Training Concept for all Dogs

When a behaviour or set of behaviours show up in only one environment, this is often called  “environment-specific behaviour”. This is just a different way of saying “lack of generalization”. ‘Generalization’ is the understanding of a concept and being able to apply it in many different settings.  Most dogs are not very good at generalizing and in fact, but are very good about seeing (discriminating) details. This is where the challenge comes in training a service dog. You must train the dog to the desired level of behaviour in each environment that he will need to do the behaviour in. Training him in just three or four situations is not enough. In each new environment, the behaviour must be retrained from the start. It won’t be until he has been retaught each behaviour in many, many different environments (think 10-15 or ore) that most dogs are able to start generalizing a behavior. (For example, they don’t understand that a sit in the house is a sit in the driveway is a sit in the park is a sit in the grocery store is a sit in the Dr’s office etc.) That is why when you move the dog to a new location, he appears to not understand the cue. That is because he doesn’t. All of the clues that told him what behaviour you want him to do are not present in the new environment. Perhaps you stood beside the chair in the house and gave the cue. Without the chair in the driveway, he doesn’t understand what is wanted.  When you reteach it in the driveway, he learns new clues to tell him what behaviour to do. Maybe it’s the fact you are facing him. Dogs are always guessing. With practice in many different locations, he starts to piece together that it is a behaviour that you are doing (hand or body signal whether intentional or unintentional) or a verbal cue that you are giving that actually is the cue that tells him which behaviour to do.  You need patience and dedication to reteach him each behaviour from the beginning at each new location and then add your intentional cues after he understands the behavior. This is where the many, many hours of training come in.  Generalization also affects how dogs behave and interact with different people.

A dog may act one way with one person and another way with another. If you take the time to teach him to loose leash walk, then attempt to show another person how he loose leash walks by handing over the leash and telling that person the cue for it, odds are the dog will not understand what is being asked. The new person will have to take the time to reteach the dog the behaviour and the dog must figure out what cues are relevant with this new person. Dogs are also quick to figure out how consistent each person is. They develop individual relationships with each person. If the new person doesn’t follow through, the dog will go back to using more practiced (and unwanted behaviours) like pulling on the leash. This is an important concept to note if you are training a dog for someone else.  

More About Program-trained Service Dogs

As mentioned in the introduction, the success rate of program trained dog bred specifically as service dogs varies from 50% or 80% or higher. The 50% stems from dogs that are specifically bred by the programs and trained using a blend of reward and punishments. More recently, higher success rates have been achieved by Guide Dogs for the Blind in California and other organizations by using positive reinforcement training only (including clicker training). This improved success rate makes sense since not only genetics but also the learning environment plays a huge role in the dog’s confidence level and adaptability. Punishment stops behavior. Reinforcement builds it. Dogs learn faster and more effectively when they learn their is no risk to being wrong. They learn to be creative and actually think about what behaviour is being asked of them. Trainers are not shutting down behaviors, they are building them. More complicated behaviours can also be taught easily. One search and rescue program who also bred their own dogs cut their teaching time by two thirds when they switched over to positive reinforcement. It used to take 18 months for the dogs to learn the skills. Then once staff were trained, they were able to graduate dogs with the same level of skills in only 6 months time. A huge time savings! 


Who Should NOT Socialize and Train Their Future Service Dog 

There are some people who shouldn’t be socializing and training their own service dog. Instead, get a friend to live with, socialize and train the dog until he is 18 mos or so. At that point, you can slowly change over from her place to yours. This gives you a chance to get comfortable with the dog, transition the cues etc and give the dog a gradual change over period. You may be able to train specific tasks, but in these cases, the basic training and socialization is left to someone else. Also consider adopting a mature dog from a breeder. 

  • If you are anxious, it might be better to have someone else who creates a calm environment to raise and train your dog until his temperament has been shaped into what you want. As we have seen, dogs are affected in a significant way by their environment. By about 18 months, a service dog has developed the temperament he will have the rest of his life, so if he has a stable learning environment to that point, he is much more likely to be able to provide the stability you need him to provide.
  • If you cannot maintain a regular schedule, that can be difficult for all but the most resilient pups. Having someone else raise the pup may increase his chances of being successful. Predictability is important for service dogs in training.
  • People who are bipolar in general are better off waiting until a dog is an adult to be partnered with a service dog. A pup or adolescent dog whose temperament is not yet fully formed does not understand why your behaviour would change so dramatically and being exposed to this drastic change can undermine a dog’s confidence, especially during fear periods. In all these cases, once the dog is mature and trained, the dog moves in with you and becomes your service dog.  
  • If you have any other disability that may negatively affect the temperament of the pup.
  • Affordability is another key factor in choosing to have (or not) a service dog. Even if you train your own, feeding and veterinary costs are high. Unexpected emergencies can run into the thousands of dollars quickly. Pet insurance is one option if you can afford it, as it have a rainy day fund. Fundraising is another option but you don’t want to be doing this when your service dog is incapacitated and unavailable to you. In some countries expenses to maintain a service dog cannot be deducted as a write off on your income tax. Can you really afford a service dog?  


Places to Start Looking for a Service Dog Candidate:

Breed 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. 

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' 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.  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 an neigbor’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 good pets, their lack of history combined with unknown rearing situation makes them poor choices as a service dog