What to look for in a Service Dog

In this section I’ll give you information about what to look for when you purchase a service dog.  If you already have a dog and are thinking of using him/her as a service dog, you can determine if your dog will be suitable for service work.  Dogs that are bred specifically as service dogs sometimes don’t make the cut and dogs that don’t have any background in any kind of service work can turn out to be exceptional. 

Regarding breed specific traits, your chances are better if your dog was bred for a specific task for many generations, but that doesn’t always guarantee that your dog will have that talent.   I’ve had Border Collies that can’t herd, yet I know a Chihuahua that was amazing at rounding up a flock of sheep.  

What makes a good service dog?   What tasks will you need the dog to do?  You wouldn’t want a Dachshund to help you with your balance, nor would you want a Belgium Malinois if you don’t have a place to exercise him.  There may be exceptions with both but they would not be your best choice.  Make your breed decision based on function.

What makes a good Service Dog

What is unsuitable as a Service Dog

Best Breeds as Service Dogs

Disclaimer:  There are good and bad versions of all the breeds listed below.  Hopefully you get the good version.  Do your research.  Remember, if you’re looking for a service dog temperament is very, very important.  Health is also very important.  With some service dogs it can take up to 2 years before they are reliable enough to work at full function.  So you don’t want to discover your dog has hip dysplasia or cardiac disease when they turn 3.  Check the genetic diseases that run in the breed.  If you have a mixed breed, check what you know is dominant.  


Best Breeds:

    • All Rounders: Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden/Lab mixes, Standard Poodles

      • These breeds are multi-functional. They are easily trained, have the height and strength to guide, are easier to train fetch than other breeds for retrieving and picking up objects, there is a reason why these breeds are used by Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Why aren’t German Shepherds on the list.  German Shepherds take a long time to mature and it can be hard to find one with a “Service Dog” temperament.

    • Breeds for Allergies: Springer Spaniels, Papillons, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Poodles, Sporting Breeds

      • These dogs have exceptional sniffers and are still easy to train. Why aren’t Beagles and Basset Hounds on the list?  They are harder to train and can be hard to live with.

    • Breeds for pain management: Xolos, Chinese Crested, Whippets, Boxer, Retrievers.

      • These breeds can provide the same warmth as a heating pad for relief of chronic pain. Due to their hairlessness, the dogs’ heat is easily felt.

    • Breeds for help with balance: Great Danes (but beware of health issues), English Mastiffs (they drool), Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden/Lab mixes, Standard Poodles.

    A word about “Doodles”.  Doodles are very popular and unfortunately when a breed gets popular it is subject to being overbred for financial reasons only.  The Doodles that end up in Rescue have less then desirable temperaments and health issues.  When purchasing a Doodle (or any breed), meet the parents of the puppy and make sure all health tests have been performed on the parents.  I get a lot of calls about Doodles that have gone awry.

    A word about Pit Bulls.  I have trained some amazing Pit Bulls.  They are smart and can be very affectionate.  But I do get calls from people that want their Pit Bull trained so they can pass as Service Dogs.  Some of these dogs have issues, usually with aggression toward other dogs.  The public perception of Pit Bulls is that they are killer dogs.  Pit Bulls were bred to be affectionate family dogs, but unfortunately, they were also bred as fighters.  Pit Bulls are not a great choice if you’re looking for a dog you can take everywhere.  You will have to constantly prove that your Pit is a Service Dog and you still probably will not be believed.  There are too many people out there that are trying to pass off their untrained, dog aggressive Pit as a Service Dog.  So, give a lot of thought if you are purchasing a Pit Bull strictly to be your Service Dog.

  • A word about Sporting Breeds like the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever.   There are the field, working lines, show lines and lines that are bred for service dog work.  If you are purchasing a puppy from a Breeder question them on what the dog was bred for.  You’ll have a hard time keeping a dog busy if they are from hunting/working lines. 

  • And of course I need to discuss my own breed, the Border Collie.   Border Collies can make a good service dog or not.  There are a lot of factors.   What are the lines and what was he/she bred for?  By lines I mean were they bred for herding, agility or conformation dog shows, there is a difference.  What kind of service is the dog needed for?  My favorite quote about a Border Collie working as a service dog goes like this; a handicapped man walks up to the cross walk and the green light turns to yellow and the Border Collie looks at him and says “We can make it”.   Border Collies are extremely smart but don’t be fooled, smart isn’t always good.  Smart can mean trouble.  Even the show lines which are sometimes a less active Border Collie are still a handful and need to have a job.   But they are easy to train and usually bond tightly with their owners.   I have puppies that work as service dogs very successfully and others that would never, ever make a good service dog, so regarding getting a Border Collie as a service dog, it depends.   

You’ll find this in my blog but I decided to make it apart of this section also.  

Getting a Service Dog from a Breeder

You’ve researched the breed of dog you’d like and now you need to find a Breeder.   You’ve decided to purchase a puppy so you can raise it to be the perfect dog.   I’d like to say a puppy is a clean slate but genetics come into play.  Pay attention to what your dog was bred for.  I get calls from people that buy a Guardian breed dog and then get upset when people are afraid to come to their house because the dog is protective.

There are advantages to getting a dog or puppy from a reputable Breeder.   The word “reputable” is key here.   If the Breeder has dogs working as service dogs, you can assume they breed for temperament.  A reputable Breeder will also do all the health tests on the parents that are currently available.  You can check these online with varies health databases like OFA (Orthodontic  Foundation for Animals).  Their website is https://www.ofa.org/.

You will pay more getting a dog or puppy from a Breeder but good Breeders will mostly guarantee their dogs.   I say mostly, because there are some circumstances where the Breeder may not give you a refund (if the dog is abused, or there is an accident, or something not covered under the contract).  But a good Breeder will always take the dog back.  And most good Breeders will work with you to help solve any problems you may have.

Shelter Dogs as Service Dogs

The current trend is to “adopt” a dog from a shelter or a rescue.  Is it possible to find a good candidate for a service dog at a shelter or rescue?  Perhaps.  However, there are a lot of negatives you need to be aware of.   

First and foremost, temperament!   I can’t stress this enough.  People will go to the shelter, see a dog that they like the size, color, type, etc and take him home and he turns into either Cujo or hides under the bed and is terrified.  Needless to say, neither of these would work as service dogs.   Unfortunately a lot of dogs are turned in for temperament problems…from bites to problems with other dogs.  

FYI, remember this….3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months for shelter dogs.   In 3 days the dog will start to adjust.  Shelters are a horrific place for dogs and they need an adjustment time.  In 3 weeks you can see their personality and start to see how much work you may have to do to have a happy, well adjusted pet.   3 months will tell you what you have.  If there are bad habits like dog aggression and you’ve made very little progress, even with a Professional Trainer, you’re probably in for the long haul.  Management in this case is your best option. 

 I will add to this discussion soon.