The Top Breeds for Service Dog Work

The Top Breeds for Service Dog Work

One of the most asked questions that I see in the Service Dog world is:

“What is the best breed to choose for a service dog?”

While any breed can legally be a service animal, and there are probably individual examples of successful SDs from nearly every breed, there are only a few breeds that I recommend to people who ask. These are:

  1. Labrador Retriever
  2. Golden Retriever
  3. Standard Poodle
  4. Smooth Collie

It isn’t by chance that the top service dog programs in the country overwhelmingly use Labs and Goldens (or a mix of the two) for their service dogs in training. They consistently display the traits necessary to a) make it successfully through rigorous training and b) have a long and effective working life.

While Poodles and Smooth Collies are not used as commonly in professional Service Dog Training Programs, these breeds have also proven that they possess the characteristics needed for a good service animal. More and more owner trainers are turning to poodles and smooth collies for their prospects.

There are very specific traits that make for a successful service animal such as trainability, gentleness and a good work ethic. Let’s explore below how these four breeds rank in those traits.

Labrador Retriever

Intelligence
90%
Biddability
90%
Handler Focus
80%
Gentleness
80%

Labrador RetrieverThe #1 choice for Service Dog programs around the world, Labs are smart and love to train. Being highly motivated by food, toys and praise makes training this breed a breeze. Well-bred Labs are confident and easy going no matter what situation they are thrown into. These athletic dogs love to make their handlers happy and will stick with a task as long as it takes. Labs can be very energetic and boisterous, especially as puppies and adolescents. They can also take a long time to mature, sometimes up to 3 years. With patience and consistency, a lab can grow into a wonderful partner.


Golden Retriever

Intelligence
90%
Biddability
95%
Handler Focus
85%
Gentleness
100%

Golden RetrieverNot far behind the Labrador Retriever comes the Golden Retriever. And with good reason, as these two breeds are remarkably similar in temperament. Goldens can be more “soft” and sensitive than Labs in some cases, so good care should be taken to build and maintain their confidence. A Golden absolutely lives to please their person and is faithful and loyal till the end. Well-bred adult Golden Retrievers are loving and gentle with children, the elderly and other animals alike. Bred for generations to retrieve, Goldens love to have something in their mouth at all times, which can be both a positive and negative trait. While chewing and mouthing can be an issue as puppies, if you need a retrieve for your task-work Goldens (and Labs) are a natural choice.


Standard Poodle

Intelligence
95%
Biddability
85%
Handler Focus
90%
Gentleness
85%

PoodlesA purpose-bred poodle is one of the smartest and most trainable dog breeds around. Standard Poodles are great problem solvers and need to have a job to do. They pick up task work quickly. While not hypoallergenic (no dog is), this breed is a popular choice for those with allergies because their coat is virtually non-shedding. Poodles are highly attentive and skilled at reading body language, making them a great choice for medical alert/response work or psychiatric work. Care should be taken to choose a reputable breeder as some lines can be overly sensitive or high-strung. Keep in mind that as puppies, poodles will often jump and bound around, however they usually settle down as adults and are fairly polite when mature.


Smooth Collie

Intelligence
95%
Biddability
95%
Handler Focus
100%
Gentleness
95%

Smooth CollieSmooth Collies, or “Smoothies” as they are affectionately referred to, are relatively new and unknown to the Service Dog world. This is slowly changing as these amazing dogs are being discovered by more handlers in need. While herding breeds are usually advised against because of their tendency towards reactivity and protectiveness, especially for those with psychiatric disabilities, smooth collies are the one exception to this rule. Well-bred smoothies require minimal grooming, have fewer health issues than Goldens, Labs or Poodles, and have an easy-going and calm temperament. Smooth Collies are devoted and friendly with their people, but polite and reserved with strangers which can make public access training somewhat easier than with the previously mentioned breeds. Like other herding breeds, smoothies are highly intelligent and focused on their handlers, making for a wonderful member of a Service Dog partnership.


You may be wondering why this list is so short and doesn’t include a common breed like the German Shepherd (particularly popular among veterans). I have specifically chosen to only include breeds that are also suitable for psychiatric disabilities.  If this doesn’t apply to you and you have previous dog training experience, you may be able to find success with breeds such as German Shepherds and Australian Shepherds. But TREAD LIGHTLY. While herding breeds in particular are extremely intelligent and in-tune with their handlers, this sensitivity can quickly turn into reactivity and protectiveness, both of which may not present themselves until maturity (~ 2 years old). Some individuals may think that protective behaviors are a desirable thing, but this is a mistake and against the law. Service Dogs are not Police Dogs and it is not their job to protect their handler, whether naturally or on command.

As mentioned above, the individuals who have the highest likelihood of succeeding with breeds outside of the ones listed here are people with extensive experience with the breed of their choice as well as with training dogs to a high level (such as competitive obedience, professional dog training, training previous service dogs, etc). Unless that describes you, your best bet is to stick with one of the four breeds described above. ( There are exceptions, such as needing a larger breed for mobility reasons, but this decision should be made with the input of someone as described previously).

Now, just because a breed is on this list, does not mean that every member of that breed has what it takes to be a Service Dog. Not even most Labs, Goldens, Poodles or Smoothies would successfully make it through training. There are many factors that fall into place for a successful Service Dog and it is important to optimize chances of success by carefully controlling each of those factors. Along with components such as socialization, an early development program (such as Puppy Culture), proper health testing, a quality breeder, and temperament testing; choosing an appropriate breed in the first place is essential. When you choose a breed you are choosing generations of genetics focused towards specific traits, traits that make for great Service Dogs. Retrieving instinct, intelligence, handler focus and biddability are not characteristics that come together on accident, but rather through breed standards and purposeful breeding. While there are always exceptions to this, they are just that, exceptions. So rather than putting your hopes in an exception, sway the odds in your favor and go for a well-bred Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Standard Poodle or Smooth Collie.

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Service Dog Society

The Service Dog Society is dedicated to the education, training and support of service dog handlers, their friends and family, service dog trainers and programs, puppy raisers, businesses, the general public, and anybody else who has questions about these marvelous helpers.

Our goal is to provide as much information as possible, in a centralized location and in an easy-to-follow format. We know first hand how overwhelming the process of getting and/or training a service dog can be, for everyone involved! Our hope is to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty that is a part of the process.