After deciding to utilize a service dog to mitigate your disabilities needs, the next question most people are faced with is "how do I choose the proper dog?" The most important thing to remember when choosing the best candidate for you is that, no matter how cute, fluffy or precious they are, you are choosing a service dog not a pet so you must focus on the traits that are important to you and your specific needs. If you were choosing a new car would you make your selection on looks alone or the proven reliability of the car's reviews? When picking out a service dog candidate it is important to remember that your favorite breed man or may not end up being the best service dog for you and that you need to pick the dog/breed that will mitigate your disability the best - not just the dog that you always wanted as a child or the dog that visually appeals to you the most.
Your focus when brainstorming breeds for your service dog should be on picking the dog that is most likely to make it to full service dog status (if you are wanting the dog to go everywhere with you.) Many service dogs in training do not make it to full service dog status for varying reasons such as health or behavioral issues - even dogs trained by professional, experienced service dog trainers. Other dogs wash out because they do not have the right temperament or personality for service dog work. You want to stack the odds in your favor that the time and money that you invest in the dog will pay off later on with a well-adjusted service dog as the end product.
Narrowing down a breed that best works for you can be divided into three parts: 1.) Choosing the breed(s) that can best assist you, 2.) Deciding where to get the dog and 3.) Picking the actual
So, ask yourself, what is the best breed for me?
So, technically a dog of any breed has the potential to be a service dog, however, there are breeds that are more suited for service work than others. There is no best breed for everyone - different breeds may be better suited for individuals based on their needs such as the specific tasks they want the dog to perform, the personalities that appeals to them, how they live, and so on.
First and foremost you must figure out what breed is best able to assist you with your disability. I suggest making a list of things you'd like the dog to do for you and refer to it often as you brainstorm breed choices. List the tasks in order of importance, as, it may be possible that a dog will not be able to assist you with everything.
Your list of assistance work tasks may naturally lead you to consider what size of dog would best work for you. If you need assistance with balance, for example, you would need a larger breed of dog. If you are looking for a diabetic alert dog that can help keep tabs on your out of range blood sugars than a larger breed wouldn't be as necessary. Both have pros and cons - larger breeds are more traditionally used as service dogs by larger, more established organizations however smaller dogs live longer (typically) cost less to feed, take up less room, etc.
You will also want to consider your personality, as it is important to get a dog that you enjoy working with - otherwise there will be tension in the relationship and most likely you will have difficulty having your dog perform for you. Terriers and Hounds who are bred to chase game tend to be a bit more of independent thinkers. Dogs that are bred to retrieve game, such as retrievers, tend to enjoy working for people. Dogs that are bred for guard work require someone who is confident at handling and typically aren't recommended for certain types of service work such as psychiatric support. Toy breeds, which are bred for companionship, tend to be very focused on their humans. Speaking with a professional, knowledgeable, trainer may be able to give you some more insight on recommended breeds for your situation. Although it is ideal that the trainer you consult has some service dog experience, trainers that don't posses previous service dog experience but do advanced training in competition obedience, dog sports, or who are evaluators for the Canine Good Citizen test can also be of great help to you. Additionally, others who have owner trained their own service dog may be able to share their experiences and tips that they found helpful.
Another thing to take into consideration is your activity level on a average day as this will directly affect what type of breed works best for you. Different breeds need different types and levels of activity in order to be fulfilled and well balanced. It is important to remember that your service dog will have needs outside of their work that you will need address. If you are someone who is low-energy and not able to (either physically or time-wise) devote a lot of time to exercise your dog daily then a lower energy dog might be your best bet. Medium energy dogs such as retrievers and medium sized terriers will need an hour or so of exercise a day. If you choose a higher energy dog breed such as a border collie or shepherd you will need to devote at least a couple hours to more intense, heavy exercise daily. Make sure you do not overestimate your ability to exercise your dog as it is always better to get a dog with less energy and over-exercise it than acquiring a dog with too much energy that you cannot handle.
A dogs coat type and grooming needs are another big point to consider. Some people don't mind grooming a dog daily and find it therapeutic while others loathe the task and would rather not deal with it. Some dogs need to be groomed everyday to avoid matting such as collies, sheltie's and shih tzu's, while others only require a quick groom once or twice a week such a shorter haired breeds like
boxers, or short haired terriers. Other breeds shed less and posses hypoallergenic qualities such as poodles and later generation doodles. Something to keep in mind is that dogs that shed more, like retrievers, if groomed professionally around every 4-6 weeks would shed less in general than a dog of the same breed who doesn't get groomed often. So how much money you are willing to dedicate to grooming services plays a big part in your breed choice as well.
Last but not least, take into account work and home life considerations. If you have a close friend or family member that you spend a lot of time with that is allergic to dogs, perhaps it might be better to have a hypoallergenic breed. No dog is completely hypoallergenic, but allergy sufferers tend to do better with dogs that don't shed or shed considerably less. If you live in harsh weather conditions, then taking into account how the dog will handle those conditions is important as it will affect their performance. If you travel for work frequently for work and have to fly, perhaps a giant breed isn't the best choice. If your co-workers aren't fans of dogs in general, a breed that is known to snore or drool might not be the best choice. All of these things will need to be taken into account.
I bet you didn't think about all of the things above, did you? After taking all of the above into account, you should have a handful of breeds that you've narrowed it down too. Taking the time to thoroughly research each of those breeds should provide you with more information. Look at the pros and cons of each breed and make sure to keep in mind the health concerns and lifespans of each breed. It's important to remember too that every dog has its setbacks, so most likely there won't be a breed that is perfect - it's very possible that there is not one best breed for you or that there is no breed that posses absolutely everything that you want. It's very possible that you will have to make some compromises in selecting a breed.
Join us soon for another blog in this series where we discuss how to pay for a service dog and brainstorm funding ideas.