Occasionally clients approach a professional dog trainer for guidance in choosing the right dog to train for service work. This is wonderful, because the client has recognized the importance of selecting the right dog for this challenging job. Professional trainers can coach clients about some of the important considerations in the selection process.
The basic questions people should ask when choosing a service dog candidate are similar to those that trainers hope pet dog owners will consider when choosing their pet. These include:
- Is the dog’s energy level a good fit for the owner’s lifestyle?
- Is the dog’s temperament a good fit for owner’s personality?
- Can the owner meet the dog’s care and grooming needs?
Just like pet owners, owner-trainers need education about how to find a responsible breeder, or how to thoroughly screen a rescue group or animal shelter. They also need education about the characteristics of the breed types they are considering, including temperament, energy level, care and grooming, lifespan and overall health.
Beyond those basic criteria, there are additional considerations specific to service dog work. Trainers can help clients by discussing:
- What size dog is needed to perform the tasks the dog will be trained for?
- Service dogs need to be highly trainable, which includes both intelligence and a strong work ethic. What is the trainability of the breeds or mixes being considered?
- The age of the dog. The training process usually takes around two years, and most service dogs need to retire between ages 8 and 10. In most cases, service dog candidates should be younger than 3 years old.
- What are some deal-breaker behaviors? These include aggression toward people or other animals, fear of novel stimuli, or reactivity.
- What are desired personality traits? For example, service dog candidates should be confident, resilient and friendly. Beyond this, there are temperamental traits that suit some types of service dog work more than others. For example, hearing assistance dogs must be highly attuned to sounds in their environment.
- How will the candidate dog’s health be assessed? Service dogs cannot have any type of physical limitation. What breed-specific conditions does the owner need to plan on screening for?
Owner-trainers may have some specific disability-related considerations. For instance, while a long-coated dog may possess all of the desired behavioral and health characteristics, an owner whose disability affects their dexterity may not realistically be able to maintain the dog’s coat.
Finally, professional trainers should remind owner-trainers that they need to have a plan if the dog they choose ends up not being able to complete training as a service dog. Will they keep the dog as a pet? If they will need to rehome the dog, it is critical that there is a plan in place for this when they acquire the dog.
Most trainers have seen the heartbreak that can result from a mismatch between a pet dog and owner. This can be magnified in a service dog and handler relationship, where there is more at stake than just a happy human-canine household. Owner-trainers who seek your input in the selection process have taken a meaningful first step in the right direction. Your careful guidance will be invaluable as they embark on their service dog training journey.