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. 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.
Of course, it would be easy if it were very clear which types of behaviors are automatic rule outs and which behavior problems can be worked through. A dog uncomfortable with some types of flooring might be able to learn to be more confident but a dog that is uncomfortable with unfamiliar people is not an appropriate dog to consider for service work.* However, often times things are less obvious and it can be harder 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, and it becomes tougher to tell whether something is a real behavior problem or just a developmental phase. An adolescent dog might bark at someone wearing a hat one evening and then be completely over it in a week. On the other hand, some behavior problems do not emerge until the dog matures or worsen as 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. There are no recipes for dog behavior modification and I’m still looking for the dog behavior crystal ball. Sometimes you really don’t know how a dog will respond to behavior modification and training until you try. Regardless, an experienced, qualified professional can help owners’ determine what their dog’s dream job actually is.
*Specialists who work with dogs with behavior problems including some dog trainers, behavior consultants and veterinary behaviorists. Even if a dog has a behavior problem that makes the dog not suitable for service work, an appropriate behavioral intervention is important. The dog can still have a great quality of life as a pet and an appropriate behavioral intervention can help the owner greatly reduce and manage the problem behavior in the vast majority of cases.