Choosing a suitable service dog prospect is a crucial part of the service dog puzzle. This is the creature that you will be pouring your time, resources, hopes and dreams into. You will possibly be putting your life and safety in their hands.
Each dog has personality traits that are a part of the foundation of who they are. Training can offer a lot, of course, but it can’t change who a dog is at their core. You can’t train out genetics and you can’t undo early life experiences. Experienced breeders and trainers know this, which is why they put so much effort into optimizing these two key pieces of a dog’s life.
When you’re assessing a service dog prospect, you should be searching for a puppy (or adult dog) that possesses many of your desired traits already. As many as possible. Set yourself up for success and don’t settle for less than your ideal.
So what are the traits that you should be looking for?
There are two parts to this: genetic health and current health. This first piece, genetic health, should be screened before you even set eyes on your prospect and is an important part of choosing your breeder (if you go that route). You’ll want to make sure that the parents, and grandparents, of your prospect have been screened for all genetic conditions applicable to your breed. This includes joint imaging and assessment, such as for hips and elbows. If you’re looking at rescues, you may not have access to this information, which is a risk you’ll have to decide to take on if you so choose.
Current health is a bit easier to judge. Just look at the dog in front of you! Of course, there are some conditions that can’t be seen this way, which is why you should take your new prospect to your vet within a few days of bringing them home. However, if you do see any signs that the dog is unwell, this is a huge red flag and you should really reconsider choosing that dog, or any of their litter (if applicable). Healthy puppies (and dogs) will have eyes that are clear and bright, clean ears and nose (without discharge), coats that are shiny and clean, and they will be curious and playful, not lethargic or weak.
Unless you are very familiar with judging structure in puppies and dogs (check out The Puppy Puzzle!), you’ll need the help of your breeder and possibly a knowledgeable third party to assess the structure of your prospect. Being a working dog, your pup’s structure should be on the same level as a performance or show dog. This may sound like overkill, but sound structure affects temperament, longevity, propensity for injury and more.
A Service Dog lives to help their handler, their person. They need to be able to remain focused and ready to task no matter what environment you’re in. No matter what distractions are competing for your dog’s attention. Handler focus is a big part of trainability. Some dogs are very intelligent, but if they are too independent and could care less about you, they will probably be difficult to train. Of course, focus can be nurtured and shaped, but starting off with a prospect that wants to please you and has this trait innately will make training so much easier.
Knowing what motivates your dog is a key part of training. A highly sought after trait in service dogs is food motivation or drive. Other common motivators are toys, praise, and touch (petting). Any of these can, and should, be used in training. The more things you can utilize to motivate your dog during training, the easier things will be for you.
Food is a great reward to use and almost every trainer uses food, especially in the beginning stages of training. If you are a less experienced trainer, you should choose a prospect that is food motivated. Trying to train a dog that doesn’t care about or work for food will really narrow down your options and make your job that much more difficult. For one thing, it’s difficult to train calm behaviors using toys (and service dogs must know how to be calm). Food is a much better option. Can it be done? Sure. But let’s not make things harder than they already are.
Service dogs must be “bomb-proof”. The dictionary defines bomb-proof as: “not easily alarmed by unusual circumstances”. Make no mistake, service dogs encounter many unusual circumstances. All of the situations that you experience in your life, your service dog will too. Flying on an airplane, riding the subway, walking on a busy downtown street, a fire alarm, a glass elevator, shiny floors at the mall, screaming children that throw themselves at your dog, the list goes on.
Early, careful, age-appropriate socialization goes a very long way in inoculating your prospect to all of the crazy things in our human society. But a dog’s innate timidity should not be underestimated and some dogs will never be fully comfortable working in public. Especially if you, as the trainer and handler, have any anxiety, your prospect will need to be confident despite your fears. This is a tall order. If the prospect is an adult, tends towards being fearful or anxious and missed their socialization opportunity (up to 16 weeks maximum), the chances of that dog being confident working in public are almost zero.
Look for a prospect that is confident and curious about the world around them.
Recovery ability goes hand in hand with confidence. No matter how confident a dog is, they will be startled by something in their lifetime. Of course, the more positive experiences your dog has with new things, the less likely they are to startle, but it will happen at some point. You want to look for a prospect that has a quick recovery time after being startled.
A common way to test this is by opening an umbrella a short ways away from the puppy/dog. How fast do they “shake it off” and go to investigate the surprise? You don’t want a pup that freezes, flattens to the floor or runs off into the corner and can’t get over it. Look for a dog that startles, but quickly recovers and is curious about it.
Service dogs put up with a lot. All service dogs need to be very tolerant and depending on what type of work they will be doing, sometimes extremely tolerant. This tolerance is both physical and emotional.
Physically, service dogs will need to be tolerant of wearing all sorts of items: vests, boots, mobility gear, eyewear, ear protection, etc. There’s a good chance that your service dog will be stepped on, bumped into, run over, squished, jumped on by children, or accosted by rude dogs (sometimes aggressive dogs unfortunately). They will need to stay calm and unfazed even in these situations.
Emotionally, your dog will need to be tolerant of your moods, being in strange environments, and doing things they may not always want to do. A service dog should be happy to defer to you or anyone else, even other dogs.
If you are looking at puppies for your prospect, touch and handle them all over their body. Suspend them right side up a few inches off the ground. Cradle them in your arms, on their back, like a baby. How comfortable are they? Do they flail about and struggle fiercely, maybe even become aggressive? Or are they soft and relaxed, completely happy to let you do whatever you please? The point of these exercises is not to frighten the puppy, so be gentle and let them know they are secure in your arms.
If you are assessing adult dogs, I do not recommend trying to judge their tolerance level unless you are a professional. You could possibly put yourself at risk of being bitten when dealing with dogs of an unknown history.
The desired energy level will vary from person to person, depending on their lifestyle. A very active individual with a high energy job that likes to hike, might benefit from a higher energy prospect. A person who stays mostly at home and is sometimes relegated to bed for many days at a time might do better with a low energy prospect.
Really take the time to sit down and objectively look at what you typically do in a day and a week. What is your own energy level? How much time do you want to spend exercising your dog? Do you have children and other pets in your home? All of these things will factor into what energy level is right for you and your household.
If you are working with a breeder, really get their input on this part. If you only get to see a puppy for an hour you won’t be able to get a good idea of their overall energy level. Communicate your needs to the breeder and if they are reputable, they should be able to help steer you in the right direction.
Hire a Professional
Finding a suitable prospect isn’t as simple as plugging in test results to a magical temperament equation. It’s more like art and takes years of experience and considerable knowledge of dog breeds, behavior, body language, puppy rearing, and training to even begin to have a good handle on the process.
Don’t try to do this by yourself. It’s nearly impossible to be objective when searching for your own dog and it’s easy to misinterpret things and skew them in a way that suits you. For example, I see many people that say “he/she chose me” because they were the first puppy to run up to them. This might seem like a good thing, but you could actually simply be choosing the pushiest puppy, not necessarily the one best suited for the job.
You will get the best results by hiring an experienced service dog trainer and/or a certified behaviorist to help you make your choice. Even if it costs a couple hundred dollars you could be saving yourself thousands of dollars and countless hours by doing it right the first time.