Service Dog Xia

Choosing a Breed for Your Psychiatric Service Dog

by Hedy Starr

Service Dog Xia

Service Dog Xia working in downtown Toronto. Photo courtesy of Brit Soutar.

Choosing a breed is often a controversial topic in the service dog community.  It really shouldn’t be.  Service dogs aren’t a fad or a fashion accessory.  It’s need before breed, and while many breeds can potentially make great service dog candidates, the best options become more limited when searching for a good prospect for a psychiatric service dog.

Herding Breeds as Psychiatric Service Dogs

As a behavior evaluation specialist who is hired to choose prospective service dog candidates, I often have clients asking for an evaluation on a litter of puppies for psychiatric service work.  Many times, the breed of dog that these clients want me to evaluate is genetically inappropriate for the job.  Many of these breeds fall into the Herding Group.

Herding dogs, like German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, and Belgian Shepherds, to name a few, have a lot of the qualities that make a great service dog.  They are handler oriented, incredibly intelligent, and have a great work ethic.  However, many herding breeds also possess a characteristic that makes them a poor choice specifically for handlers with psychiatric disabilities:  Protectiveness.

Many herding breeds also possess a characteristic that makes them a poor choice specifically for handlers with psychiatric disabilities:  Protectiveness.

The Problem with Protection

Now, having a dog that is protective of their handler sounds like a great thing, especially to those who suffer from anxiety, PTSD, and phobias.  However, it is the downfall of many great service dog candidates.  A service dog cannot be protective.  Not only does it endanger the general public, but the Department of Justice has specific wording stating that dogs who act in a manner that can be interpreted as aggression cannot be service dogs.

The Instincts of a Herding breed

Herding breeds were developed to pick up very subtle changes in body language.  On top of that, they are bred to react very quickly.  They need to be able to do this in order to read the livestock they work and make independent decisions as to how to gain better control of the animals and the situation.  This translates to service work in the sense that the dog is very aware of the handler’s body language and mood, and the dog’s instincts dictate that it must react to them.

Anxiety and the Blue Shirts

Imagine, for example, that I have a herding breed handler who is very anxious around people wearing blue shirts.  This dog is genetically wired to watch everything around them and pick up subtle changes, so it absolutely picks up when the handler is nervous.  The handler may start to sweat, their pulse escalates, their respiration becomes faster and more shallow.  Even if they do their best to hide it from the person in the blue shirt, their dog still notices.  Many other breeds will notice it, too, but not many other breeds are supposed to act the way a herding dog does.

Aggressive dogBecause herding breeds were developed to notice everything in their environment, after just a few times of watching their handler get anxious around people wearing blue shirts, the dog will make the connection in their brain that it is the blue shirt that puts their handler in danger.  Worst case scenario is that dog will try to protect the handler against the blue shirts.  They may do this by barking, lunging, growling, even trying to bite that evil blue shirt.

Often times, the dog will notice before the handler even does.  This often happens in breeds that were bred to be protective.  Another outcome is that a herding breed may notice their handler’s reaction to those blue shirts and decide that those blue shirts are indeed something to be afraid of.  They can show fearfulness, unease, stress, even panic when somebody comes up wearing a blue shirt.

Now let me put this into perspective.  Substitute “blue shirts” for men, or for people who look a certain way, or for children.  These are the most frequent anxieties my clients complain about.

Exceptions and Recommendations

Like any generality, there are exceptions.  Occasionally, you’ll find a dog who, despite genetic makeup, doesn’t display any of the discussed characteristics.  I have had great success placing well bred smooth collies as psychiatric service dog prospects, and the vast majority of those have gone on to graduate from service dog training and have a very successful career.  However, the overwhelming majority of herding dog breeds are advised against for the reasons in this article.  The most recommended breeds for psychiatric service work are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Standard Poodles.