I often receive inquiries from people with dogs with behavior problems asking if we can address the behavior problem and train the dog to become a service dog that works in public access. Certainly, some dogs with minor behavior problems may be able to work as service dogs. In fact, few dogs are “perfect” for this challenging role. However, determining which types of issues can be worked through and which cannot is not an easy process.
When we are training a service dog, we are putting the dog in challenging situations, in complex settings and expecting the dog to be calm and relaxed for a long period of time. Service dogs are routinely in environments where avoiding something that may be scary is impossible or very difficult. This work is hard for the most emotionally stable dogs. Putting a dog with a history of serious behavior problems in the role of a service dog is likely to make the behavior problem worse and risks triggering behavior problems that otherwise may never have occurred! It is not fair to the dog and if the dog may exhibit aggression when stressed, it is a risk to the public.
It is clear that dogs who have a history of aggressive behavior towards people or other dogs are never appropriate to train for public access service dog work. Dogs who exhibit frequent stress, anxiety, and fear are also never appropriate to train for public access service dog work. Of course, it would be easy if it were always very clear which types of behaviors are automatic rule outs and which behavior problems can be worked through. Some dogs who are uncomfortable with some types of flooring can to learn to be more confident, while others may develop additional fearful behaviors over time. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if the dog’s behavior problem can be addressed sufficiently to the point where the dog can work as a service dog or not.
To make things even more complicated, behavior is not static. Young pups change significantly in their behavior as they mature. Newly adopted dogs take months to settle into a new environment and their behavior can be difficult to accurately assess during the transition period. Adolescent dogs may go through periods where their behavior is up and down even if there are no changes in their living situation. On the other hand, some behavior problems do not emerge until the dog matures.
Additionally, some behavior problems fall into a gray zone where the problem may not be serious but also not necessarily be something that can be modified to the point where the dog would be able to work as a service dog. I’m still looking for the dog behavior problem crystal ball. For this reason it takes months and repeated assessments to determine a dog’s suitability for the challenging job of public access service dog work. Some dogs who are not appropriate for public access service dog work, may still be able to help their owners as at-home-only service dogs.