This post is a part of our series Digging Deeper – Exploring Specific Breeds as Service Dogs. In this series, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of various breeds in the context of being a service dog. In this article, we consider the Standard Poodle.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say poodle? Probably a small, white dog with a crazy haircut, and probably wearing at least one bow. Bonus points if you also picture the dog dancing on their hind legs or wearing some sort of clothing. To be honest, that was also how I viewed poodles for many years. I saw them as small, froo-froo, yappy dogs that were most definitely not for me. Fast forward to receiving an email from my service dog program to find out they had a standard poodle they thought would be a good match for me. Ultimately, I swallowed my prejudice and agreed to work with the dog to see if we were a good fit. It’s now 2 years later I can’t imagine not having my goofy poodle as my service dog.
Despite the stereotype of being small, froo-froo, and yappy; poodles are one of the top 3 breeds most often used for service work. In addition, many people are so familiar with the stereotype that they don’t even realize poodles come in “large.” While toy (4-6 lbs) and miniature (10-15 lbs) poodles can also be service dogs, the standard is the most commonly used size of poodle.
There are many qualities that make the standard poodle a great service dog. However, there is no perfect breed. Even the top breeds for service work (Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and standard poodles) have some weaknesses that handlers should be aware of as they are selecting a breed to train. Here we will go over some reasons why poodles can be great service dog prospects while also addressing some of the challenges that can come along with this breed.
PRO: Poodles are known for being one of the most intelligent breeds, so they have a great capacity for learning tasks. They are eager and willing to learn, and very quick to pick up new tasks. They are confident and ideal for medical alerting as they have a natural tendency to exhibit intelligent disobedience as needed.
CON: While intelligence is most definitely an asset, it can also be a challenge. Poodles know exactly how smart they are. They will not tolerate ongoing repetitions of the same task over and over again. Once they know something, they will expect to be challenged further. A handler needs to be prepared to keep training sessions varied, introduce new tasks (or fun tricks) regularly, and pay attention to their dog’s behavior to prevent boredom and their dog deciding when the training session is over.
PRO: Poodles are considered the closest to hypoallergenic as you can get with a dog. They do not shed and will not leave hair behind during public access.
CON: No dog is truly hypoallergenic as people can be allergic to dog saliva and not the fur. In addition, because they have hair instead of fur, poodles require fairly extensive coat maintenance. Expect to pay $50-100 every 4-6 weeks for grooming. A motivated handler can learn to do the clipping themselves, but they will need to purchase quality clippers and any other necessary grooming equipment.
PRO: Poodles are great for a wide range of service tasks. They pick up scent training quickly so are good for diabetic alerting or other trainable alerts. Due to their confidence, they are often independent thinkers and have a natural ability for intelligent disobedience. They are not emotionally reactive so they can also be ideal for psychiatric work. Many males (and some females) are large enough for light mobility work, and some males may be large enough for heavy mobility depending on the size of the handler. Note: Any mobility training or work should not occur until the dog is fully grown and the joints are x-rayed and cleared for mobility work by a qualified organization (not just a regular vet) as well as the height and weight of the dog being within the recommended ratios of their handler’s height and weight.
CON: Because they are very independent dogs, poodles do not have the same happy-go-lucky, eager to please personality of other popular breeds, such as the lab or golden. They are typically not food motivated but work motivated. This often requires a different style of training than for some of the other common service dog breeds (labs or goldens) that are food motivated. Poodles need to be allowed to use their problem-solving skills to engage them in their task training and service work, but handlers also need to find a balance of not allowing their poodle to run the show.
PRO: Most poodles have medium to high energy. As puppies, they are often very busy and playful. Even into adolescence and adulthood, poodles are eager to work and be active. This can be a great asset for service work as they often enjoy long outings and are ready to go on new adventures. They also often have a long work life compared to other breeds who slow down at younger ages.
CON: Most poodles have medium to high energy. While this can obviously be a huge pro as mentioned above, this can also be the downfall of a dog with great potential if a handler is not prepared. Without regular exercise and both mental and physical stimulation, poodles can become destructive. They need an outlet for their energy, and if it is not provided, they will create it. Owning a poodle means harnessing their energy into service work AND physical exercise. This can be in the form of a yard to run around in, multiple walks a day, going on runs, daily trips to the dog park, etc. There are many ways to let dogs be active, so the how doesn’t matter as much as making sure it actually happens.
PRO: Poodles tend to have a slightly aloof personality. They bond well with their handler and family but are often standoffish in public and with people they don’t know. This makes them great working dogs as they don’t have a natural friendliness and typically don’t ask for pets or approach strangers on their own.
CON: In some lines, this aloofness has developed into a touch of aggression. Handlers working with a breeder should ask for references so they can talk with owners of previous litters. Ideally, a behaviorist would meet the dogs and see if there are any signs of aggression in other dogs from the same parents. Obviously, this is not foolproof, but getting an idea of the personalities of the dogs who have come from that line can indicate whether there is a streak of aggression that may end with the dog needing to be washed out.
PRO: Poodles have what is often referred to as “tunnel vision” or “poodle focus”. This is when they hyper-focus on something to the extent that it can be difficult to distract them. For service work, this can be an incredible asset. When a poodle is in work mode, they often display a very different personality than during their off-duty time. They will become very focused on their job and very attentive to their handler while ignoring much of what is going on around them.
CON: While this poodle focus is a great quality for working dogs, it can also be their kryptonite. When that tunnel vision ends up on something the handler does not want their dog focusing on, it can be very difficult to break their concentration. Even removing the dog or the object of their focus often will not break that concentration. Poodles are incredible problem solvers and have no problem figuring things out for themselves, so many times, attempts to distract them is only met with brief acknowledgment before they return to whatever they are focusing on. Their independence combined with this poodle vision can present one of the toughest training challenges to overcome when working with poodles.
I know what you just read might feel overwhelming. Both the pros and cons seem complex and hard to break down into whether it is too much or a good fit. Don’t let this post scare you off from poodles! The purpose here was to make sure people really understand both sides of working with a poodle as a service dog. If you’re going to invest years and thousands of dollars, you want to know what you are getting yourself into.
Standard poodles are incredibly intelligent dogs that are great for a wide range of service work. They are eager to please and love to work. However, they do have a streak of independence that a handler needs to be prepared to properly direct into working to prevent these dogs from becoming bored and creating their own stimulation. Give a standard poodle a chance and you’ll see how incredible these dogs can be as a service dog! Remember, there is a reason standard poodles are one of the top three breeds for service work.