How to select a dog to train as your service dog?
Since we help owners train their own dogs as service dogs, the question of how to pick the right dog comes up daily at our training facility. This is not a job for all dogs – it’s a job for the very few who come with the right temperament. The dogs that do the best love to go everywhere with their person. For them, being a service dog is the best life they could ever wish for.
When we’re training a service dog, we have two goals in mind:
- Task training: teaching the dog all the tasks needed to help with a particular disability.
- Public Access: teaching the dog how to behave in a public setting.
Although task training does require an experienced service dog trainer, most dogs can learn how to press an alert button, give deep pressure therapy, or get help. Medical detection is a little more complex and fewer dogs can become good at it, but still, that’s not generally where dogs flunk out of service dog training.
The part that is the most challenging, is the public access. We might not see going to a mall as anything special, but for a dog, there are many reasons to be nervous. The sliding doors open suddenly with a “swish” sound, the floors are shiny and slick. Sounds and sights are not what most dogs are used to, and it can be a little nerve-wracking to have to adapt to so many different situations: the constant coming and going of strangers of all kinds, people pushing carts, carrying bags, walking with canes, wearing hats or large coats. Some want to touch the dog with or without warning, etc.
With that in mind, what are we looking for in a service dog?
- A very social dog. It’s a well-known fact that service dogs should not bother other people and that includes soliciting attention and petting. With that in mind, some purposely choose dogs that don’t seek attention and consider it to be a plus if the dog is leery of strangers. However, a dog that shows concern and would rather stay away from strangers is a dog that is clearly uncomfortable around them. How would that dog feel about repeated exposure to strangers? What happens when that dog goes out in large crowds? How does the dog feel when a stranger suddenly reaches out and without any warning, pets the dog? What happens if a child runs toward them? Since the dog goes out on a regular basis, they might gradually gain more confidence – after all, the situation is becoming familiar. But they can also become sensitized instead. Think about having to meet with a person that rubs you the wrong way. Maybe this person hugs you a bit too long or stands too close, talks too loudly, and asks personal questions. You might put up with that person a few times, but if you must meet him on a regular basis, you’re likely to develop a real aversion to him and look for ways to avoid him. Dogs aren’t any different. A dog that can tolerate standing close to strangers if they don’t pay too much attention to them and don’t try to pet them may be fine most of the time. But we can’t control everything, all the time. People WILL come into their space and WILL pet them. You might also need assistance in case of a medical emergency at some point, and your dog will need to be OK with a stranger managing him. A service dog MUST be comfortable around people. A comfortable dog is a dog that will look for opportunities to interact and welcome the attention of pretty much anyone. How do we prevent that? Through training. It’s in training that we teach the dog not to seek out strangers and leave them alone.
- A confident dog. Since the dog will have to work in all sorts of settings, the dog must be rather confident. Think about trying to focus on your job if you don’t feel safe. How would you write an email, answer the phone, bake a cake, fix a car, etc. if you had to constantly be on the lookout for danger? If we take that a step further, how would you feel about someone operating on you if they are mostly concerned about their own safety? When we need a dog to be responsive, attentive to our needs and our changes in smell or behavior, it’s best if the dog’s nervous system isn’t on high alert. Service dogs need to be confident enough to be at ease in most situations. They might get spooked at times, but they should recover quickly. A dog that takes time to adjust to a new situation and is generally shy and anxious in new places, is not a good service dog candidate.
- A Velcro dog. If you choose a very independent dog, you are likely to struggle to get your dog to be attentive to your needs. If your needs will require your dog to react to your change of smell, to your mood or to certain behaviors, and take initiative on her own, you’ll get much better results with a dog that naturally wants to stay close. There are breed differences that will influence your dog’s behavior and natural tendency to be focused on you. Dogs that have been bred to work alongside their person will be better at this line of work than breeds that were bred to spend time alone with a herd of sheep.
- A food-motivated dog. Training is about motivation. There are essentially two ways to get a dog to perform. We can teach a dog that if it doesn’t do what we ask for, unpleasant things happen, like a leash pop, physical pressure, harsh tone of voice, etc. Or, we can teach a dog that when he does offer the right behavior, good things happen, like a treat, praise, a toy, playtime, or something else that the dog likes. The problem with using punishment in training, is that we also increase stress and decrease confidence. Not to mention that for the dog, training is not so fun anymore. This is supported by studies that have shown how this approach negatively impacts the dog and the relationship between the dog and his handler. At Medical Mutts, we use what is called positive reinforcement. We don’t have choke chains, prong collars, or apply any kind of pressure on the dog. Instead, we teach the dog that sitting, pressing alert buttons, retrieving objects, and laying calmly under a table, are pleasant and are rewarded. We use treats. Just like we get paid for our work, dogs also work best when there’s something in it for them. This will also increase their desire to be with us and they will enjoy learning new things. Studies have shown that the best-performing dogs are also the most motivated. So, if your dog is willing to put out some effort for a treat, that’s great! If your dog is just so-so about food, you might need to be more creative to motivate her and training will be more challenging.
Which breeds work best?
With the above guidelines in mind, which dogs or breeds have the best chance? The first thing to understand is that there is no breed that guarantees a successful service dog. Some breeds will have more individuals that can make the cut than others, but no breed will have a 100% success rate. That being said, breed differences are still significant, and even though we will look at each individual dog to assess their potential as a service dog, we must also consider the impact of breeding on the dog’s temperament. At Medical Mutts, since we get dogs from rescues and shelters, we work with lots of different breeds and mixes, but there are certain types of dogs and temperament traits that we carefully select for.
Let’s start with the dogs with the least chances of making it as a service dog:
- Dogs from working lines. I know this sounds contrary to what most might expect since after all, service dogs are working dogs. But working line of dogs are generally very active dogs. They have been bred to work long hours and have tons of energy to do so. They also generally come with more anxiety and can be more challenging to manage. Service dogs don’t have to sniff cars coming through the border all day. They mostly lie around the office, or lie under the table at a restaurant or in school, until you occasionally need help. They follow you around when you’re shopping, but most dogs can easily manage the level of activity that you need. Dogs that are always on the go, however, are a lot of work when you’re trying to go through your day.
- Guard dogs. It might be tempting to get a dog that naturally wants to guard you, especially when you suffer from social anxieties or PTSD. However, those dogs guard because they view strangers as a potential threat. They need time before they feel they can trust. Such dogs will struggle to relax and focus on your needs when you’re out in public. Not to mention the potential for accidents that can happen when you encounter the occasional dog lover with poor boundaries.
- Independent dogs. We touched on this already, so I won’t go into detail, but such dogs won’t do well when it comes to checking on your needs.
Here are the breeds that work the best:
- Labradors. Not any Labrador though. There are two distinct types of labs: English labs, also known as show labs, and American labs, aka field labs. The English lab is shorter and broader with a very large head compared to the American lab. They are also calmer and less anxious. The field lab is a working line of dogs (see above why they don’t work as well).
- Labrador mixes. Many lab mixes can do great as service dogs.
- Golden retrievers. Just as with Labradors, there are two types of goldens. For the same reasons as above, the show goldens have a better chance of making it. Be careful in your selection, however, as goldens can be prone to resource guarding and health issues.
When selecting a dog to train as your service dog, it’s critical to learn about the breed. Even if the dog is a mix, the breeds will have an impact on the dog’s overall temperament. When taking a dog out in public, our concern must be for the security of the public and for the security and well-being of our dog. If our dog isn’t comfortable out in public, we’re exposing them repeatedly to stress-inducing situations. Over time, this will impact their mental and physical health. It will also affect how much a dog might be of help to you.
How to test a service dog candidate
It would be too long to go into the details of temperament testing in a blog, but here are at least a few guidelines:
- In testing we look for signs of anxiety or fear. We’ll look to find out what the dog is afraid of, how the dog reacts when afraid and how long the dog takes to recover.
- Always test in an area that is unfamiliar to the dog. In a familiar place, the dog will seem more confident. You need to see how the dog reacts to a new environment.
- Since you’re a stranger at first, watch how quickly the dog wants to interact with you. Don’t do anything at first and wait for the dog to seek your attention. How comfortable is the dog with you?
- Watch the dog’s reaction to different unfamiliar objects, like an umbrella or a noisy toy.
- Offer the dog a treat. See if the dog is willing to follow the treat. How long does the dog try to get the treat if you hide it under your hand?
Picking the right dog to train as your service dog is the first and most important step in your journey towards getting a dog to help you. You’ll find all the info you need to make the right choice in my new book: Selecting and Training Your Service Dog: How to Succeed in Public Access Work.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D. is an author, researcher, dog trainer, consultant, and Executive Director of Medical Mutts, a non-profit organization specialized in the training of medical alert dogs for conditions such as seizures, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, etc.