When it comes to service dogs, does breed matter?
Can a Chihuahua, a Great Pyrenees or a Pit bull be a service dog? Do service dogs have to be Labradors, Golden Retrievers or German shepherds? Are there certain breed requirements for service work or is it up to each one of us to decide what breed we would like to have as a service dog? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look into the work these dogs perform for their humans.
We can divide the training of service dogs into two main categories: 1/ the special skills for the work they will be trained for, such as opening and closing doors, pulling clothes off, picking up objects from the floor, getting help or alerting to changes in blood glucose levels; 2/ the public access skills, such as lying quietly under a restaurant table, walking through a crowd in a heel position while paying attention to the handler and generally staying as well behaved and inconspicuous as possible.
Most service dogs are taught between 30-60 different behaviors and are required to perform under any circumstances and levels of distractions. With such requirements, it only makes sense that whatever dogs are used, they need to have certain training qualities. Food-drive, above average attention span and desire to interact with people are a must. Very independent dogs, with little interest in food and interaction would be difficult to train to the required level. So as long as a Maltese, a Rottweiler or a Chow have the required training qualities, teaching them the different behaviors would be possible. However, depending on the task, certain breeds would definitely be more suitable than others. Labradors or shepherds or mixes of these breeds are better suited for mobility assistance for instance than a dachshund or a Brittany. Although these breeds could learn just as well, for those tasks, size does matter. For diabetes alert where scent is in questions, small or medium dogs can perform just as well as larger breeds as long as they have a regular nose (as opposed to brachycephalic dogs like pugs, Boston terriers, Pekinese, etc.). Hearing dogs can also be smaller size dogs and Papillons are often trained for that particular task.
Trainability and physical aptitude for the task however aren’t the only criteria when choosing a dog for service work. As mentioned above, a large part of the training, although much less spectacular than the first category of skills, has to do with public access skills. In fact, socializing dogs to enough situations, places, sounds, surfaces and people, and teaching them to be well-behaved and responsive, requires as much or more training hours exposure and practice than the specialized skills. In addition to the trainability qualities mentioned earlier, dogs that work in public settings need to have the right temperament. Skittish, barking and generally reactive dogs would not do well. If the dogs are under-confident either for lack of socialization or genetics, they’ll be mostly concerned about their safety and may be unresponsive to their handler’s needs. Being disruptive in public would also put anyone in difficult situations. If a dog barks in a restaurant or movie theater, handler and dog will be asked to leave. Not to mention any aggression issues that can become a real liability to the handler.
So we’ve identified that service dogs need to have certain trainability, physical aptitudes and temperament qualities. Does that mean that as long as these requirements are met, any breed can do the job? This is where good judgement comes into play. On one level, yes, absolutely, there is no reason that any dog with those qualities couldn’t make a great service dog, regardless of breed. On the other hand however, we also need to consider the public’s reaction to the dogs. It’s impossible to walk through a mall or any public place with a dog, without drawing attention. Some people will love to see the dogs, others will be indifferent or mildly annoyed and some will be outright scared. Everybody has his/her own history with dogs. Most business owners will be very accepting of dogs and if they’re dog lovers, they may even be very welcoming. Others on the other hand, will have concerns for their business and other customers and will be uncomfortable having the dog in their facility.
According to ADA laws, service dogs have the right to be in public places and anyone with a disability should be able to bring their dog with them. That being said, just because we have the right to a service dog doesn’t mean we also have the right to bully our way into situations where others can be uncomfortable. The physical appearance of the dog can make a big difference in the reaction the dog will elicit in others. When walking through a mall with a Labrador or a Golden Retriever, or even a German shepherd, because of a long history of those breeds as service animals, most people will automatically assume the dog is very friendly and questions about the dog’s right to be in a public place will be very rare. Other breeds however may raise more concern and reactions can be very different. A Rottweiler or Pit Bull for instance, although totally suited for most service work, would be more likely to trigger fear and concern in others. There has been an increase in news reports lately of disabled veterans being questioned and sometimes asked to leave a restaurant with their service dog. In most case, these dogs were of bully breeds. Although it makes sense to want a dog with guarding features, especially if we’re dealing with PTSD, we also need to understand that such dogs will trigger agitation in others. Fear is often irrational and difficult to control. Why chose dogs of breeds that will increase the chances of concern and sometimes distress in others, and therefore more problems for the handler? Any time we interact with the public, we become an ambassador for other service dog owners. These breeds could make great service dogs and constant exposure will over time desensitize the public to their presence in public places, but we have to be aware that until then, many may have negative reactions to them. We can either make it easier for others to get used to having more dogs in public, or we can develop concerns from the public with potential consequences for all of us down the road. When I choose a dog to work with, I look for friendly looks. The friendlier the dog looks, the easier it is for both the handler and the public.
When working with service dogs or owning a service dog to help us deal with our disability, we want to chose the dog that will best fit our needs. As we’ve seen, many breeds or even mixed breeds can do the job. It all depends on the dogs’ ability to learn, perform and go into public places safely and discreetly.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.
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.