*By Rachel Moseley. Title image is of Service Dog Jubilee, a German Wirehaired Pointer. Courtesy of Ariel Wolf.
People in service dog groups are constantly asking what breeds can make good service dogs. The answer is pretty much always Labs, Golden Retrievers, and Poodles for good reason. Their temperament is perfect for the job. There’s a reason the majority of programs use them. Sometimes, they aren’t the right breed for an individual handler though, for any number of reasons.
A Note About Breed Generalizations
Some people get upset during the discussion of breed generalizations, but this is an important aspect of finding a prospect. Breed generalizations are a necessary part of discovering what breeds may work well as service dogs. Every breed has a standard for temperament the same way they have a standard for appearance.
Not every dog in a breed will be true to the standard, but when discussing breeds as a whole the breed standard should always be referenced. There will be the occasional individual of a breed that would make a great service dog because its temperament isn’t typical of the breed. Because of that, some people that have successful service dogs from breeds that normally wouldn’t succeed will say that since their dog works well, their breed as a whole is perfect for service work. This just isn’t the case. Never get a puppy of a breed that wouldn’t generally make a good service dog and count on it not fitting breed standard for temperament.
Some Things to Consider
When you’re looking at getting an atypical breed there are a lot of things you need to assess about yourself. When considering these things, it is extremely important that you’re brutally honest with yourself about both your own abilities and those of the breeds you are looking at.
1. Need Before Breed
The most important thing to remember during your breed search is to always put your needs before breed preference. Don’t choose a breed just because you find it aesthetically pleasing or because you’ve always wanted one. You need to look critically and choose the breed that best fits your needs. For an obvious example, you shouldn’t get a Papillon when you need mobility work just because they’re adorable and you have wanted one since you were a kid. While Papillons may work wonderfully for some disabilities, one isn’t realistically going to be able to do much for someone needing mobility work.
2. Training Ability
Probably the most important thing to look at and honestly assess is your training abilities. If you’re a novice trainer, be honest with yourself about that. You’ll need to look into breeds that are known for being biddable and easy to train. Even if you’re working with a trainer (which you should be), you’re still going to be responsible for the bulk of the training.Do not choose breeds like Huskies, Rottweilers, Bull Breeds, or other breeds that are notoriously hard to train. You want to set yourself up for success. Successfully training a service dog is hard enough. It’s crucial that you find a breed that matches your ability level to help stack the odds in your favor.
If you have more experience training (or you’re a professional trainer) then trainability isn’t as big of a concern. However, I’d still suggest getting a relatively biddable dog as a prospect rather than going for the most difficult breed you can find.
3. Breed Experience
Another aspect you should consider when trying to find the right breed for you is what breed experience do you have? For example, if you grew up showing and training German Shepherds and have a thorough understanding of the breed, that breed would potentially be great for you whereas it may not be for someone else. If you’ve worked with primarily retrievers in the past then you should consider sticking with a retriever for your prospect. Getting a service dog prospect isn’t the time to test your ability to train a totally different type of dog. You want the odds stacked in your favor.
When to Look Into Alternative Breeds
There are some basic guidelines for when it may be best to look into breeds outside of the typical breeds you see as service dogs (Labs, Goldens, and Poodles):
1. Mobility Requirements
One time you should look into alternative breeds is if you’re looking for a mobility prospect and none of the typical breeds fit your size requirements. I definitely do not recommend looking for a breeder that breeds dogs outside of standard just to find a Lab, Golden, or Poodle that fits your size needs. If you need a larger dog now is the time to start heavily researching breeds that fit your size requirements.
2. Already Have the Dog?
If you already have a young dog that has a natural alert for your medical conditions then that’s definitely a time to not concern yourself with looking for the traditional breeds. Instead you should take your dog to a behaviorist and get them evaluated to see if they have the temperament required to be trained as a service dog.
3. Fear of Large Dogs
If you’re extremely fearful of larger dogs and a smaller breed could perform the tasks you need that may be a good time to look into nontraditional breeds. Contrary to what some people think, some smaller breed dogs can make amazing service dogs in the right hands.
A Note About Psychiatric Service Dog Prospects
If you’re looking for a psychiatric prospect that narrows down your options quite a bit. You don’t want any breed prone to developing protective instincts (think German Shepherds, Dobermans, Rottweilers, Livestock Guardians, and other breeds known for their protective nature). The trouble with protective breeds is that often that instinct doesn’t kick in until the dog has matured. Therefore, you could put around 2 years of training into a dog just to have an otherwise amazing service dog in training become extremely protective and subsequently have to be washed out. You’d end up losing two years of time and money and gain a lot of heartbreak. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
You also don’t want any breeds that are extremely sensitive to their handler (most commonly herding breeds like Australian Shepherds and Border Collies). These dogs are prone to picking up on their handler’s anxieties and becoming anxious themselves. Handlers that work a herding breed for psychiatric work will often try to say that since their dog is amazing all herding breed dogs will make incredible psychiatric service dogs. However, that’s simply not the case.
The Process of Choosing an Atypical Breed
With everything mentioned above in mind, it’s extremely important to go through a few basic steps if you’ve decided that Labs, Golden Retrievers, and Poodles aren’t the right breeds for you.
Step 1: Put in Writing What You Need
The first step is writing out what you need from your potential service dog. This list could include size, fur type, temperament, and anything else you think may be relevant. You should also include other general things like how much time you’re willing and physically able to put into exercising and grooming your dog.
Be brutally honest with yourself to make sure that you end up with a dog you can handle and care for. Not one you wanted to think you would be able to handle and care for but in reality, can’t. Remember, this is generally a ten or more-year commitment to the dog. Making sure you understand your lifestyle and what type of dog would best fit in is crucial to having a happy partnership.
Step 2: Basic Breed Research
The next thing you need to do is start doing some basic research on breeds. Make yourself a chart with the breed name, size, exercise needs, grooming requirements, temperament, and anything else you think may be relevant in helping you narrow down what breeds you’re looking for. It may help to have a simple pro/con section as well.
This phase can last as long as you want. This step can end with your list having five breeds or fifty on it, it is completely up to you. If you need mobility size should be your first concern, don’t bother spending a lot of time on breeds whose standards don’t have them averaging the approximate height and weight you need.
Step 3: Narrow Down Your List
Now you should weigh your list of needs against your list of breeds. Cross off any breed that doesn’t align with your both your needs and your lifestyle. At this stage you really want to cut your breed list down to just two or three breeds.
Step 4: Intense Breed Research
Now that you’ve narrowed it down to just a couple breeds it’s time to really delve into breed research. Read anything you can find about them and study the breed standard. Once you think you have a fairly good grasp on the breed it’s time to go even farther.
Talk to breeders, not about getting a puppy immediately but just from the perspective of learning about the breed. Ask about both the positive and negative traits of the breed and any other questions you may have. Ask people that have been in the breed for decades if they have an opinion on their suitability as service dogs. If you can, find other service dog handlers that have the breed your looking at and ask them any questions you have about the breed. Take your time and take notes as you go. Once you’ve done it with all of the breeds you were seriously considering it’s time to review your notes and make the final decision.
Step 5: Selecting a Breeder
Once you’ve chosen your breed it’s time to start hunting for a breeder. You have two viable options at this point. Try to find a young retired show dog that already has a solid foundation or set out looking for a puppy. Either way you’re going to want to talk to breeders and find one that fits your needs.
Remember throughout the process of choosing a breed for your prospect that the last thing you should be concerned with is aesthetics. Never choose a breed just because you like their appearance, think they’re cool (or will make you seem cool) because they’re less common, or because you saw one once and fell in love. Do your due diligence in researching and matching breeds to what you need.
There are burdens that come with choosing nontraditional breeds. The general public is conditioned to think that the only service dogs out there are Labs, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, and sometimes German Shepherds. You’ll get more questions with atypical breeds and you’ll attract far more attention than someone with a common breed.
Accept the risks that come with choosing any breed. The chance of having to wash out a dog is potentially going to be higher depending on what breed you choose and you need to make sure you are aware of any breed specific issues that may arise.