There is some debate in the service dog community about whether it’s best to get a service dog prospect from a responsible breeder or adopt one from a shelter. It’s definitely possible to get a successful service dog prospect from both but there are advantages and disadvantages to adopting a rescue dog or buying a puppy from a breeder.
Adopting a Rescue Dog
Although many rescue dogs have behavioral or health issues that make them unsuitable as a service dog prospect a few do have the potential to make excellent service dogs.
Note: It is absolutely crucial to have a behaviorist or service dog trainer accompany you to evaluate any dog you’re interested in.
There are benefits to getting a dog from a rescue and there are some risks, also. Let’s review a few of them.
# 1 – An adult rescue dog already has a set temperament. When you have them evaluated you know that there are not going to be many drastic changes in their temperament. With a puppy, it’s a lot of educated guessing on how the dog is going to mature. That said, be aware that most rescue dogs go through a “honeymoon” phase when they first come home where they act totally different before their true temperament starts to really come out. That phase can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months before you get to see the true personality and temperament of the dog you’ve rescued.
# 2 – Getting an adult from a shelter means that if you need mobility work you don’t have to wait the 18-24 months it takes a puppy to grow up before you can train weight bearing work. Instead, you’d be able to start immediately after having a vet x-ray their hips and elbows (and maybe even their spine).
# 3 – Adopting a dog has a relatively low upfront cost and potentially leaves you more money for training and supplies.
# 1 – You don’t know the dog’s history. A rescue dog could have an over-the-top reaction to something common because of their past history with people that looked a certain way or to a specific type of item. Some dogs may be terrified of people of different skin colors and fine with others or terrified of big hats or any number of variables. Some of these things you can work through of course (with the help of a trainer) but it takes time and some dogs won’t fully get past their issues. You wouldn’t know it was an issue until you encountered it yourself and saw their reaction.
# 2 – Unknown health. When you adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue you don’t have the benefit of knowing the health history of its sire and dam, let alone any siblings or grandparents. You could be adopting a dog with hidden issues like Hip Dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia, or other issues that weren’t apparent to the shelter staff.
# 3 – With a rescue dog you’re likely going to have bad habits you have to train out before you can really get into the service dog training. Many dogs in shelters are surrendered for behavior problems that their original owners either couldn’t work through or didn’t try to fix. They can range anywhere from jumping to severe separation anxiety or any number of other issues.
If you want to adopt a dog from a shelter rather than go through a breeder then you should be aware of both the pros and the cons of that decision.
If you decide to go the rescue route:
Talk with the shelter staff and volunteers about what you’re looking for in your prospect. They know the dogs well (especially the volunteers) and will generally be able to help guide you in the right direction. Bring a behaviorist or experienced service dog trainer in to evaluate the dogs you’re looking at as well. They’ll be able to see things and test the dog in ways that the shelter staff and volunteers aren’t able to. Do not under any circumstances just trust your gut to pick a dog for your service dog prospect. Very few rescue dogs have the temperament it takes to make it as a service dog. It’s so important that you stack the odds in your favor and listen to the professionals helping you choose a dog.
Buying from a Breeder
Of course, buying a puppy from a breeder is a risk too. When you’re looking for a service dog prospect there are no absolute certainties and there is always the potential that something will happen and cause you to have to wash them out down the line.
Let’s go through the pros and cons of buying your prospect from a reputable breeder.
# 1 – You get to shape the dog from puppyhood. With a puppy from a breeder, you get to start exposing them to things the day they come home and you’re in control of how they react to different stimuli. If they have an issue with anything you can easily work with them until whatever it is turns into something positive.
# 2 – You know your prospect’s genetic history. When you go through a reputable breeder you can look at their health testing and know the health of the sire and dam as well as any other relatives that have been health tested. You can meet the dam (and maybe even the sire) and discover what their temperament is like. Knowing these things will help you have an idea of the health issues and temperament your potential prospect may develop.
# 3 – You get to train your prospect from scratch. At 8-12 weeks when your puppy comes home, they likely won’t have learned any bad habits yet. Instead, you can get ahead of any problems and work to train them correctly before bad habits like counter surfing or separation anxiety form.
# 1 – You have to deal with all of the struggles that come with puppyhood. Teething, housebreaking, chewing, fear periods, there’s a lot that puppies go through that has to be handled appropriately. There is a chance you can find an older dog from a breeder but depending on the breed those aren’t always easy to find.
# 2 – It is really easy to accidentally mess up a puppy. Properly socializing a puppy takes effort and experience. If you don’t get it right the first time around you may not be able to fix it later. You can stack the odds in your favor by working with an experienced trainer from day one but it’s still something to keep in mind.
# 3 – Getting a puppy from a reputable breeder isn’t cheap. The upfront cost is going to be a lot more than rescuing a dog from a shelter. On average, well-bred puppies are anywhere between $1000-3000, sometimes even more. You can find cheap purebred puppies but the price is a strong indicator of quality when it comes to dogs. You also have to go through the puppy buying process which includes researching your breeder and answering any questions they might have. It’s important to ensure you’re going with a breeder you want to be attached to for the life of your puppy.
If you decide to buy a dog from a breeder:Take your time researching breeders and choose one that not only is a responsible and ethical breeder but one that goes above and beyond for the puppies they produce in order to give them the best possible start in life (and that wants to stay in contact with you for the rest of the puppy’s life). Don’t rush it and skip over important details because you want/need a prospect RIGHT NOW. It’s better to take your time and stack the odds in your favor so you’re less likely to have a wash out a year or two into the training process.
In the End
Neither way is right or wrong. If you want to go through a breeder don’t let the “adopt don’t shop” people sway your opinion or shame you for your decision in any way. If you want to adopt a dog don’t let anyone convince you that the only way to have a successful service dog is to get it through a breeder. Assess the pros and cons for both options and decide what’s best for your situation. Either way, you should have a behaviorist evaluate potential prospects and help you choose the proper dog or puppy for you.