What Breed Makes the Best Service Dog?

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In todays modern world, service dogs are being used to combat a wider range of disabilities than ever, and as a result, different dog breeds are being employed. An ideal service dog cannot be aggressive towards other dogs or humans, and absolutely cannot be protective (unless the dog is a seizure alert dog, and then the animal might be trained in non-violent ways to keep well-meaning pedestrians from trying to interfere with the victim least they do more harm than good). An ideal service dog is also people oriented and sensitive, but not needy or whinny. They are also confident, but not dominant, and in the perfect world, require little grooming, as this might cause unnecessary hardship for their handler. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, service dogs should possess intense focus for their handler, and ignore every other person trying to attract their attention. Finding the perfect mix of personality traits in a canine can be very difficult, and that is why only a handful of dogs ever graduate service dog training.    

The one breed that almost everyone assumes is fit for service is the gentle Golden Retriever. These dogs display a special aptitude towards the extensive training that service dogs undergo, and they are naturally friendly and sociable. Often raised from birth to become assistance canines, Golden Retrievers are perfectly suited for mobility, guide and hearing work, as they are large dogs who instinctively pay attention to their handler’s needs. 

Labradors are another breed that is being used more and more frequently. Like Golden Retrievers, they are friendly, out going and highly trainable. In order for a dog to be trainable, they must display the correct ratio of willingness to please and intelligence. Labs excel in all areas of service work, but their enthusiasm can be particularly seen in their work with children and the elderly. Most labs in service seem to understand when it’s necessary to curb their exuberance and take their roles as guardians very seriously.

Then, there’s the non-traditional breeds of dogs that are being trained. Standard Poodles are becoming a popular choice, due to their high intelligence and their hypoallergenic fur, which makes them a suitable candidate for individuals with allergies.  Other breeds-although far more uncommon- are the Doberman, German Shepherd and the Rottweiler. Cursed with a largely unearned reputation of violence, these dogs, when properly trained, excel at forming strong, lasting bonds with their handler, and have displayed high levels of intelligence. Dobermans are being increasingly used for medical alert, as their keen sense of smell and loyalty to their handler enables them to sense when their human is in trouble. Due to their strength and tall stature, German Shepherds and Rottweilers make superb mobility assistance animals.  All three breeds-when properly trained-make gentle, attentive therapy dogs. Maybe, one day, when the negative stereotypes have faded, these amazing dog breeds will be used more often for service work in the public eye.  

Small dog breeds can also work as service dogs. Although their involvement is largely disputed because of the limitations that accompany their size, they might be idea for a city-dweller or for someone who simply doesn’t have room for a 90 pound Lab in their home. Corgis, the Smooth Fox Terrier, the Carin Terrier and the Russell Terrier are all very intelligent breeds that excel at training. They are generally energetic enough to keep up with a handler, yet calm enough to remain focused on tasks.

While for decades pure bred dogs have largely dominated the service dog field, today, rescue and mixed breeds have been stealing the spotlight. Traditionally, service dogs have been largely pure bred, as the predictability and dependability of the breed ensures that certain character and physical traits will be present. A Golden will most likely be friendly, a Doberman will most likely be intelligent and Poodles will most likely be hypoallergenic.  Because temperament is so vital to producing a service dog, and because of the years that it takes to train, many trainers prefer to work with pure breeds, but recently Golden Retrievers and Labs have displayed genetic weaknesses which have shortened their lifespans considerably. Breeds such as the Poodle, Doberman and German Shepherd suffer from acute hip displasia, and smaller breeds suffer from a myriad of serious health conditions. The truth is that pure breeds are being inbred in an effort to maintain their desirable traits and physical characteristics, while mutts and mixed breeds in general remain stronger, healthier and live longer lives.  That is why, when selecting a dog, it is so important to check that the breeder is responsible and that your dog hasn’t been inbred-puppy mills and dog stores are the worst culprits. 

Thus, mixed breeds have become popular choices The Golden and the Poodle have been combined to create a dog that shed less, with the Golden’s friendliness and the Poodle’s intelligence. The Lab and German Shepherd are often bred to produce energetic, out-going pups that have the Lab’s excitability and the German’s loyalty.

Also being used more frequently, are rescued dogs. These dogs have been taken from abusive or neglectful homes, and present many pros and cons as service dogs. On one hand, their pasts are often largely unknown. Finding a dog suitable for service dog training is very difficult, as the dog must fulfill all of the desired character traits even after having possibly suffered at the hand of a human. Forging trust and friendship with the dog might be more difficult. Additionally, by the time they are rescued, some animals are too old to start training; most dogs begin training as pups, and once a dog reaches five or six years, it would simply take too long to train and employ. Furthermore, bad habits such as chewing or barking would have to be removed, which can be a difficult process in itself. 

On the other hand, rescued animals often have a deep loyalty and love for the human who saved them. Sometimes they know basic commands which saves the trainer valuable time. Many times, rescue dogs are chosen because they are just old enough to begin training (between two and three) yet have outgrown puppyhood, thus saving the trainer and handler valuable time waiting for a dog to mature. Rescue dogs are also less expensive to purchase than pure bred dogs, and there is a wider choice. Admittedly, finding a dog that has likely been abused or neglected that possesses all of the desired character and physical traits is rare, but it can be accomplished through through research and careful analysis. 

Service dogs can be almost any breed. They can be tall, short, small or big, furry or hairless. They can be born and bred for service, or mutts rescued from a dangerous past. But no matter the dog’s breed, takes an extraordinary animal to become a service dog. 

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A Support Group

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When I made the decision to get a service dog, I was thinking about my own health and welfare. I knew that a service dog was the best choice for myself, and I was confident in my abilities to take care of any situation that might arise. I knew that I had a responsibility to feed and care for my dog, to continue his training and to ensure that he was a glowing example of a service dog. What I didn’t stop to realize-until quite recently-is how owning a service dog has impacted my family and friends.

First, it has greatly impacted my family. My parents have embraced whole-heartedly my decision, but it was also a huge leap of faith on their part. They had to trust that I had throughly researched my choice, that I was going to follow through on my promise to take care of Rally and that I wasn’t going through a fad. In supporting me in training a dog to become a service animal, they were silently accepting the newest addition to the family who would accompany us everywhere. They were accepting dog hair in the car and nail scratches in the hardwood. They were agreeing that I would have a new shadow, and that their daughter had a disability that required aid in a form that they could not provide. Without my parent’s support, I would never have been able to have Rally. They are my strength.

My decision to get a service dog has also impacted my best friend and boyfriend, Alex. He knew me prior to having a service dog, and he had to get used to Rally when I got him. Suddenly, there was dog hair in the car and on his clean clothes. There were dog treats in his coat pocket and poo bags stuffed into the corners of the car.  When we went for a walk or drove into town, my attention was divided; part on him, part on Rally. When we sit down to eat our first concern is finding a quiet table away from prying, curious onlookers. We notice if the floor is tile or carpet-and he carries Rally’s bed roll if the ground is cold. He shares my bed with Rally, often pushed to the outer corner when Rally wiggles between us. He sacrifices “us time” when I am too busy training Rally or attending to his needs, and he has listened patiently as I rant about individuals who fake service dogs. Alex can easily rattle off a list of the laws regarding disabilities and service animals. He is well versed in our accessibility rights and nods politely when I repeat them to him for the thousandth time. He is my rock.

Then, there are those wonderful, uplifting individuals who are involved in helping you get your service dog. As a part of the rescue organization where I got Rally from, the home inspection team, the trainers and the housing staff, they make a huge difference in my life by listening to my dream of turning a dog into a service animal. They didn’t laugh or hang up the phone, or tell me that it was impossible. They listened, nodded and offered sage advice. I know they are but a phone call away, and that if I ever needed anything, they would help.

Last but not least are the strangers that I pass every single day, who look at Rally and smile. They are happy and uplifted to see a dog working in an alien environment, riding the escalator or plane, walking through the mall or browsing at the super market. They might not even say anything, but their warmth helps to remind me that for every raised eyebrow and scowl, there are a dozen more smiles and praises.

My point is, without a support group, owning a service dog can be very difficult. I honestly don’t think that I would be able to live with Rally and go through day to day life without the unconditional love and strength of my family and friends. When someone makes a mean comment or a snide remark, they are the first to check that I am okay-then turn and kick ass. When I need a shoulder to cry on or someone to cheer me up, they are the first to step up to the plate. They are the first to accept me and Rally as a team. So, if you are thinking of getting a service dog-or already own one-remember to thank the individuals in your life who are there for you. Their support makes the biggest difference in your life.

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Aside

Washington was just as one might expect; rainy, beautiful and gray. Traveling with Rally was a breeze. We arrived at the airport early, giving ourselves plenty of time to pass through security and find our boarding gate. The TSA agents were very thoughtful and polite, waving Rally and I towards the metal detector. I took off my shoes and walked through with Rally. On cue the detector beeped, noticing the metal on his vest and dog tags. The TSA agent led us to the side of the traffic, and gave us both a through pat down. She was very interested in Rally’s past as a rescue, and we chatted cheerfully as she ran her hand along the inside of his vest. Rally laid down obediently as she turned to pat me down, and once cleared, we bid farewell and headed to our boarding gate. Once there, we boarded our plane and Rally settled down at our feet. The take off was a bit bumpy, but Rally was occupied with a bully stick, and slept peacefully until we landed in Seattle. 

Traveling with a service dog always presents unique situations, and while everyone at the airport and rental car agency was kind, respectful and polite, we did encounter individuals who were less educated about service dog teams. One such charming person was the manager at a Chinese buffet. By now I can sense when I am about to be challenged over Rally’s access, and I braced myself, plastering a bland, polite smile across my face as she leaned over the counter. 

“No dogs.” She waved a finger. “No dogs.”

“He’s not a pet.” I explained. “He’s a service dog.”

She scanned me; not blind, not visibly physically handicapped, no obvious mental impediments. “Need ID.” 

“Actually, service dogs don’t require ID.” I said, consciously keeping my voice calm. “There is no such thing as an official service dog ID.”
“ID.”  She insisted. “Need ID.”

I repeated myself, and she became annoyed. “ID.”
Becoming a little annoyed myself, I pointed to the numerous patches that adorned Rally’s vest, some which read, “Medical alert service dog”, “Access required by law,” and “Do not pet.” “ID.” I said. 

She grudgingly allowed us into the restaurant, where we were promptly led past the clean, brightly lit tables and placed in the far reaches of the building. The booth was dirty and it was gloomy. We were served our requested tea by a woman, who stared in open fascination and suspicion at Rally curled up at my feet, and after that, never saw a waiter again. We felt very uncomfortable in the hostile environment, and left quickly after eating. 

I mention this incident not to draw attention to the lack of education of the restaurant staff or to complain, but to merely point out that when traveling with a service dog, one can become too confident in one’s welcome. The plane and rental car agency were a piece of cake to navigate; but no matter how many of the public that is educated about service dog teams, there are always those who treat us-especially those with invisible disabilities-with skepticism and disbelief.  After my encounter at the restaurant, I made myself a promise that if I was ever met with such open hostility and doubt, then I would turn around and take my money elsewhere. 

Other than that slight blip in an otherwise pleasant evening, the rest of our trip was wonderful. We explored various local cafes and attended a comedy/improv show. Flying back to Nevada, I reflected on our vacation and realized how fortunate I was to have Rally and my best friend Alex to accompany me throughout life. It was fun to travel, but it’s good to be home. Image