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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