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How to Choose a Service Dog Candidate

Wheather it’s time to look for your first or next Service Dog, knowing how to choose a Service Dog candidate is extremely important. What traits should you look for? What’s important? What doesn’t matter? There is a sea of misinformation that a Service Dog handler must sort through when deciding to choose a Service Dog candidate. Cut through the chaos and learn what what to look for while selecting a potential partner.

Imagine… as you wade into the wriggling pile of puppies and kneel in the middle, it occurs to you that one of these tiny balls of fur is going to be your friend, your partner, your focus, your pride, your companion, your joy and your worker. Not only will this puppy be all of the above, it’s going to be the ONE, the one meant for you, the one your soul already knows.

Musing over these thoughts as you allow the puppies to swarm over you, you idly pick one up and ask it, “Are you the one?”

Laughing as the puppy bites your finger, you gather the soft, fat critter into your arms, breathe in the intoxicating aroma of sweet puppy breath and day dream about all of the possibilities. The puppy wriggles for a bit in protest at being restrained but quickly quiets down, snugs its head against your belly and falls asleep. While you know that the Service Dog selection process is far from over, something in your heart says that this puppy is the right one.

The Problem

The scenario laid out above is one that nearly every “dog person” is familiar with. Almost every single one of us has had a dog that “picked us.” Sometimes, the dog’s choice was a good one and sometimes, it wasn’t. Therein is the inherent problem, though. When the dog is allowed to choose his handler, the results are left in chance’s hands.

When you choose a Service Dog candidate leave as little to chance as possible. Even dogs who have been selected from an extensive line of well-bred Service Dogs, been trained and socialized to the max and have undergone extensive medical testing to ensure soundness for work don’t always make it to the completion of Service Dog training.

Being a Service Dog is super hard work and very, very, very few dogs are suitable. Maximize your chances of Picking a Service Dog Puppysuccess by carefully considering your needs and desires, and then working to find the perfect Service Dog candidate. Don’t let a puppy pick you until you’ve narrowed it down to “almost no chance of failure.”

The simple fact of the matter is that we, as the two legged-members of a Service Dog team, are much more intelligent than our four-legged partners. The puppy that chooses you and tugs at your heartstrings may or may not be the proper puppy for your goals, needs, wants and disability. You, as the human half of the team, must carefully consider several factors in order to choose a potential partner that has the most likely chance of not only succeeding as your canine lifeline and Service Dog, but of also enjoying every single step along the way. Remember, the destination is meaningless without the journey.

The Solution

The solution, unfortunately, is not an easy or quick one. Picking a Service Dog candidate involves careful research, a lot of time and in-depth (and, at times, brutally honest) consideration of your goals, wants, needs and desires. Settle in, though, and hang on tight. We’re in for a whirl-wind trip through the confusing world of Service Dog selection. The following ten points (and a bonus) will allow you to carefully weigh your options and choose a candidate that’s perfectly suited for you.

Prequel: Picking a Service Dog Breed

Picking the breed or mix of your Service Dog is a highly personal decision. The very first place to begin is with your partner’s size. Do you need a large, sturdy dog suitable for brace and mobility support, or will a mid-sized dog be suitable? Do you need a small breed that’s easy to transport and care for due to frequent hospitalizations or travel? Do you need an agile breed that’s compact?

Once you’ve selected a size, consider the parts of your potential partner that you can NEVER change, like grooming needs and activity level. If you do not like long hair, then you will not enjoy having to groom a long haired dog or having to pay to have him groomed. Do not select a breed known for traits you simply can’t see yourself ever learning to love.

Finally, consider the necessary traits common to all successful Service Dogs – calm demeanor, solid handler focus, friendly and without suspicion, aggression or timidity, highly trainable yet capable of doing the same job day in and day out without getting bored and inherently driven to seek out and perform work.

Mentally (or actually write down) a Venn diagram of sorts with the three realms of breed selection – size, unchangeable attributes, and temperament, and utilize a breed profile site to start slotting potential breeds into place in the diagram. When you finally arrive at a breed (or two or three) that fits perfectly in the center of the diagram, you’re ready to move on.

Feel free to review our breed profiles of some common Service Dog breeds. We’re adding more all the time, so if the breed you’re interested in isn’t showcased yet, don’t automatically skip over it!

1) Where are you getting your puppy from?

First and foremost, you must consider the ultimate source of your puppy. Will your partner be a rescue or come from a breeder? There are huge pros and cons to each, but that’s a topic for another day. Due to the sheer number of breeders and rescues available, this first item of contemplation can seem overwhelming. Take a deep breath and ask yourself the following questions:

How long has this breeder been producing this breed or how long as this rescue been in service?

A breeder who has been working with Labradors for 35 years has much more experience than one who has only been breeding for 2 years. While a new breeder or rescue shouldn’t automatically be excluded, just ensure you’re extra discriminating. Knowledge comes from a variety of sources and can be amassed quickly but experience comes only with time and practice. [/toggle]

Does this source have return clients?

It’s commonly said that word of mouth references are the best form of advertising. The best indicator of success, though, lies with return customers. Anyone can have a positive experience once. It’s those who come back time and time again, though, that offer the best indication of good service. If a breeder’s or rescue’s name keeps popping up among your friends or contacts in the Service Dog world, it’s a good rule of thumb to at least add them to your list so that you can do some more research on the side.

Many people say that you don’t have to like a person in order to do business with them. In many cases, that’s correct. When it comes to choosing your puppy’s source, though, nothing could be further from the truth. You are, in essence, picking your puppy’s godparent — choose a Service Dog candidate carefully! This is the person who has the most experience with your puppy’s line, genetics and potential. You need and want them to be an invaluable resource, much like a mentor, and not a person that you dread communicating with, like your in-laws.

Do you agree with the source’s philosophy

The best potential Service Dog puppies come from sources who socialize extensively and expose the puppies to a wide range of experiences long before they ever go home. Does your source utilize early learning or bio-conditioning with their puppies? Do you agree with the source’s beliefs on training, raising and loving dogs?

2) Who are the puppy’s parents?

We’ve all heard the quote, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” When it comes to puppies, this quote rings even truer. Quite simply, you cannot create what you do not have to begin with. You cannot create something from nothing. If there’s something about the parents that you just don’t like, don’t assume that your puppy won’t inherit that characteristic. While the way you raise your puppy has much to do with how she or he turns out, your puppy’s parents have even more influence. Insist on meeting at least the puppy’s mother. If you wouldn’t want to own her yourself, don’t put a deposit on one of her puppies.

3) What are the puppy’s genetics?

Make certain that your puppy’s parents have been tested for all genetic diseases common in your breed of choice. You have too much at stake with your new team member to pour thousands of hours of training, love and socialization into him or her only to loose your friend to a genetic mismatch.

4) Know the medical history of the puppy parent’s joints

There’s been a lot of debate concerning hip and elbow dysplasia and whether the diseases are genetic or not. Regardless, if your puppy’s parents have good hips and elbows, it’s likely that your puppy will, as well. Adult dogs can’t have their hips or elbows certified until they are two years of age. Common hip and elbow certification and registry agencies include the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and PennHip. If a puppy’s parents have their hips certified, that information will be visible on the puppy’s pedigree and registration certificate. Additionally, the breeder will have certificates to show you for each parent.

If you’re picking a Service Dog candidate from a rescue, it’s all but impossible to be certain of the puppy’s genetics or joint health. It’s a huge gamble, but if you look for basic structural soundness in mom and babies and have preliminary x-rays done early to check joint health, you’ll have a better chance of success.

5.) Evaluate the performance of the parents

The phrase “history repeats itself” rings true in the performance dog, working dog and Service Dog world. If you want a top-notch Service Dog, you need to select a puppy from parents who are known for producing top-notch Service Dogs. While many excellent Service Dogs have come from parents who have never produced Service Dogs and from unproven lines, you exponentially increase your team’s chances of success by carefully examining your potential puppy’s performance history.

Look for repeat Service Dog status, multiple therapy dogs and a wide range of performance indicators, like basic obedience certifications (CGC or C.L.A.S.S.), temperament testing (ATTS), sports titles (like obedience, rally or agility) and other signs that the line produces dogs with stable temperaments and that are able to succeed in a wide range of work, particularly the type of work that requires handler focus, high degrees of specialized skill or training and a calm, stable demeanor.

6) Evaluate the puppy’s temperament

Temperament is, quite simply, your puppy’s nature. It’s the demeanor your puppy was born with and the tendencies your puppy will have the rest of his or her life. The best tip to remember as it relates to temperament testing is “What you see is what you get.” Your puppy will not “grow out of” anything you see at an early age, including, but not limited to, aggression, timidity, aloofness, over-stimulation or dominance.

Familiarize yourself with some basic puppy temperament tests and then select one or two to utilize with candidates. The test should measure temperament, drives and potential and give you a base idea of what you’re looking at. They’re not always right, but they provide a starting point. You want to choose a Service Dog candidate who is firmly in the middle of the road — not dominant, but not submissive. Not cocky to the point of stupidity but not cautious and wary about everything. Not clingy but not ignoring you.

7.) Evaluate the puppy’s attitude

The puppy’s attitude can be most closely equated with his/her personality. Some puppies are extremely happy and others stoic. Some puppies are goofy and others poised. A puppy’s temperament may be perfect for your needs but his/her attitude and approach to life may not mesh with yours. Make sure that you spend some time with your puppy before you take him/her home so that you can ensure you like your puppy’s personality.

8) What kind of a drive does this puppy have?

A puppy’s drives motivate a puppy to work. Some puppies have an extremely strong play drive; others have a strong prey or food drive. Before testing a puppy’s drive, you must first determine what type of training you use most frequently. Many Service Dog handlers favor clicker training and positive reinforcement (if you don’t know why positive reinforcement is the best route to go when training a Service Dog, then read this article by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior), so high food drive and/or play drive is important.

When you choose a Service Dog candidate, you want to look for a puppy who’s not insanely driven to chase the toys or who seems positively desperate to get the food no matter what. Those puppies can have a difficult time focusing while learning and working if rewards are present. They’re also a nightmare to distraction proof! To the contrary, though, you don’t want an aloof puppy without interest. Never assume that you can “build” a puppy’s drive — s/he either has it or they don’t.

Select the puppy who happily chases a ball and and follows a food lure without a frantic, agitated air. You want the puppy who doesn’t quit, but not the puppy who will push past the point of exhaustion to win.

9) What is the health of the puppy?

A healthy dog starts out as a healthy puppy. Always remember that a sound structure is built on a sound foundation. If your puppy starts out unhealthy, you can oftentimes fix it. You cannot, however, fix the foundational damage that might have been done. A healthy puppy is active, has bright eyes free of discharge and has a soft, shiny coat free from bald patches, scabs, scales, dandruff or sores. Make sure that the entire litter looks healthy and then spend extra time examining the puppies you are considering bringing home.

10) What does your gut say?

Last but not least, don’t forget to consider your gut feeling. If something is right, it’ll feel right. Even if there’s not an instant spark or connection, you’ll feel to your core if you’re making a good choice. If something in you says that your choice isn’t quite right, listen to it!

When you’ve done all the research, carefully weighed all of your options, checked the health and personality of the parents and other puppies and you’re not quite sure what to do next, listen to your heart. Choose a Service Dog candidate that resonates with you the deepest and start the long, arduous journey to that of success with the best potential Service Dog you could have picked by your side.






  • Deb and Dakota May 16, 2014

    Ms Grace, you’ve gone & done it again – another terrific, informative, well-done article!!!
    Ms Grace, you’ve given me permission in the past to copy & distribute several of your articles: to my Service Dog Team friends, to breeders, and to the curious public. Is there any way I could get a blanket permission from you to copy & distribute your articles as I’ve done in the past? I always put a (c) with your name & titles, and the anythingpawsable website URL right under the article title. I know I’m asking a lot, BUT – you write such wonderful articles, that really need to be shared with all my peoples, and peoples that do not belong to anythingpawsable. I hope & pray you will grant me this blanket permission – it will help so many people….
    Thank you in advance for your consideration! Best Regards,
    Deb & Dakota – World’s Best Psych, Med Alert & Mob Service Dog!

  • Rene sanders May 19, 2014

    Thank you for the well written article. I am in the process of choosing my first service dog. While I have the broad spectrum covered I am having a hard time getting anyone (breeders/trainers) to give me a little more specific information. I am hoping some one here might Mabel able to help me.

    I have early stage Parkinson’s and have some balance issues, sometimes difficulty getting up from a sitting or prone position and minor freezing moments. I am 5’7 and 140 lbs. because of allergies I was looking at the “doodle” breeds. Can go with a labradoodle or do I need a larger dog? If so would a giant schnoodle or even giant schnauzer be a good candidate or should I stick with a standard goldendoodle? Trainers and training schools usually give me the answer of whatever dog they are personally breeding or the pat answer of straight up lab or retriever.

    Any input will be greatly appreciated. I live in New Mexico and have met with limited
    knowledge on service dog training.
    Thank you,

    • RNB May 31, 2014

      The thing to remember about poodle crosses is that not all of them will be allergy-friendly or non-shedding. They can inherit coat qualities from the non-poodle side as well. Some poodle crosses do shed. A friend of mine bought a Aussie/poodle mix for a pet and that dog does shed (and is neurotic along with needing hip surgery at a year old, but that’s more a poor testament to the “breeder” they bought the dog from, who did no health or temperament testing on the parents).

      If you’re looking at those crosses, definitely find a reputable breeder who will be honest about what they produce and who will make sure the parents are healthy, health tested, and have good temperaments. The hybrid vigor catch-phrase that’s often associated with poodle mixes doesn’t hold water if both parents are genetic nightmares. Pups will inherit genetic issues from their parents, and if both parents have terrible hips for example, their offspring have the chance to inherit that as well. Since allergies are a concern, I would consider a giant schanuzer- poodle cross if you like the crossbreeds. Schnauzers aren’t a shedding breed either.

      If a straight standard poodle is agreeable to you, they are very, very smart, they bond tightly to their people, and do make excellent service dogs. The SD organization I volunteered for used them for wheelchair assist and seizure alert. A giant schnauzer would also be a good option, especially if you have previous dog experience. I have Dobermans myself, but I like the Giants too. I have to admit, the grooming requirements for poodles, poodle crosses, and Giants are a bit intimidating for me, my Dobes have spoiled me there! Giant Schnauzers are excellent dogs, very smart, confident, very attached to their person, and are good problem solvers. They are protective, though, and if a more protective breed or cross isn’t what you’re looking for, a Giant might not be the best choice.

      I wouldn’t automatically DQ a protective breed from being a service dog though- there are Dobes, Giant Schnauzers, and GSDs for example, that make excellent service dogs. And one of the dogs I worked with was a Rottweiler mix, she was just brilliant. A good breeder will help guide you in selecting a puppy and can be a tremendous help in matching what your expectations are to the right dog. Good luck with your search!

    • Ana March 20, 2017

      Did you ever decide? If so what was the results? If not consider visiting or contact owners and breeders, either in person, by phone or internet.

  • Suzy de Lancey March 14, 2015

    I will be adopting my first service dog from a shelter. I will also be training it myself. I have been told not to get a dog from a shelter. Yet I don’t understand why careful
    observation of various tests, won’t suffice? I need the dog for a diagnosis of PTSD.
    What are your thoughts on adopting a shelter dog to train?

    Suzy de Lancey

    • raemoon101 March 16, 2015

      Suzy de Lancey,

      I don’t see any problem with adopting your first service dog from a shelter for PTSD. If you were adopting the dog to be a medical alert dog I would vote against it, but you shouldn’t have any problem for a PTSD dog. Just make sure you have a great connection.

      Also, be prepared to keep the dog as a pet if it doesn’t work out. If the dog is unable to be a service dog for whatever reason you would need to keep him as a pet. It would suck if you would have to take him back to the shelter just because he couldn’t meet your needs.

      Other than that I think it would be great if you rescued a dog from the shelter that really connects with you. That’s one less dog at the shelter waiting for a home.

    • Ana March 20, 2017

      How did it go for you? When considering this great article it is much harder to ascertain a dog’s abilities, genetics and information through shelters. Older dogs are harder because of what experiences they come with both good and bad, more stress for you and with PTSD it is hard enough to deal with your daily routines so an added stress may not be one to consider. Some things to consider are crucial for success. It can be done with a shelter dog but it is with more risk and more work, what will you do if it does not work out and do you have the trainers you need to help you when it gets tough? One needs to consider their abilities and disabilities, what can you do to better your life to it’s best for your body, mind and soul? Once the dog enters your life it will be more for you do be responsible for so you best conditions for yourself should be considered and be in place. Everything you consider you may want to run by with counselors and doctors you work with for what is in your best interest as well as the dogs, look for local support as well. The more you prepare and I suggest pray on it the greater your success. Hoping for the best!

  • JamieHampton April 10, 2015

    You talk about getting a puppy as your first service dog. But what about an older dog who is already train for you, but has not been trained as a service dog? Or one that has been your partner since he/she was 6 weeks old?

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  • Kim December 19, 2015

    I am looking for a service dog/puppy I have a Labrador now my issue is he sheds unbelievable.I have a beagle/cocker yorky mix of coarse she’s not a service dog but I would like a shorter haired service dog.My Labrador is perfect in every every other way.Does anyone know of a Labrador short haired mix breed they can recommend.

    • Ana March 20, 2017

      You need to look, some labs are shorter haired but they will always have hair, it depends on the breeder.

  • Anne Knott January 20, 2016

    I got a 5 month old giant schnoodle (he looks just like a huge, black giant schnauzer — 110 lbs now) to be my service dog after I had back surgery that failed. He is perfect! The most wonderful, intelligent, loving dog that I have ever owned. He braced for me when I couldn’t get off the floor myself and brings in the newspaper; he’ll pick up and hand me anything I ask him to. What I didn’t train him to do and somehow he figured out on his own, is that whenever I am sad or emotional he will come and curl around my head if I am in bed or get as close to me as he possibly can if I am somewhere else. It is uncanny how he knows to do this. He must have figured out somehow that he can truly make me feel better if he is close to me. If I am angry he does the same thing. You would think he’d go in the opposite direction but he comes to me and I settle right down when he nuzzles me and I pet him. He learned how to open the storm door on the deck to the laundry room. He has to jump up and put one paw on the door jam and with the other paw pull the door latch out then jump down and run in before the door closes on him. He must have watched us do it then figured it out. One day he appeared in the house and I hadn’t let him in. Then when I saw him do it the next time, I couldn’t believe it. I’m not a professional dog trainer. Imagine what this creature could have done if he had somebody that knew what they were doing! But I’m glad he’s mine — he is my perfect dog and I love him so much! He is 8 and 1/2 now and has arthritis really bad. It’s in his spine and in his knees. I had him x-rayed to make sure he had good hips when I got him but I wasn’t prepared for this. I can’t hardly stand to see him suffer. Luckily we found a vet that is treating his pain so at least he can enjoy life again. I haven’t needed him to be a service dog anymore for several years and he can’t open the door anymore either but he is more important to me every year. I don’t know how I will be able to handle it when he goes.

    • Ana March 20, 2017

      Wow what a blessings, beautiful story, you should write a book, really. I am movtivated now with my search for the right dog. Please look into Dr Pitcairn and Dr Dobias, both vets have great holistic advice that is doable, affordable and really makes a difference in all dogs but especially our oldie but goodies like you pup. Pitcairn has books a must have and he does do videos but they are a little heady, but Dobias has wonderful products that are safe to use and won’t poison you, they are usually human grade, has super videos and will answer any and all questions via email. If you have any issue with any product just call or email and they are super about it. Peace and good things to you and yours and thank you for sharing.

  • Joyce McCrea March 24, 2016

    I am getting a Great Pryeenes puppy soon. Do you think this breed if dog with training can be a good Service Dog? My husband is quickly losing his hearing and mobility and we live on a small farm. I want a companion for him.

  • Walt Hubert April 11, 2016

    My daughter has two small children 8 and 6 would a service dog be good with kids or only attach itself to the person its trained to assist , can it be a family pet ?

    • Ana March 20, 2017

      All service dogs need off time and family is great for that, they can not work 24/7 and even training has its off times. There are lots of wonderful people that share their stories on-line that go over every thing from clicker training to the basics on equipment. Family can learn too what not to do and what to do. Hoping for the best for you and yours.

  • Lori Brucklacher September 28, 2017

    I am becoming more disabled every day, I need a Friend/dog that can pick my body up, call 911 if needed. I love all pups, it just needs to pick my fanny up, 112lbs. Answer door with me, pick veggies with me.

  • Lorelei Jasso October 18, 2017

    Kea Greace; this is all wonderful information, thank you so much!
    We are currently looking into getting our first service dog as my fiance has been diabetic for 25 years and is becoming a bit dicensitized to his high and lows. We have communticated with at least one service dog company but we would like to be there from the very beginning instead of just receiving a service dog that might or might not be a good fit for us. Getting her used to our lifestyle is important for us and a better transition for everyone. We have decided that a standard schnauzer or schnoodle is the best option for us and although I have emailed a few breeders I am still a bit lost about where to find a breeder with a good reputation for service dogs. Any advice or recommendations are highly appreciated.

  • Michele Cliff March 12, 2023

    I am a breeder of Australian Shepherds with the goal to produce dogs excellent for work, sport, companionship and service work ( service work really being my overall heartbeat). I see a huge gap between dogs needed and dogs available and I really want to see more breeds included into the overall picture. I currently do all that I know to do to produce healthy, sound minded, biddable dogs incorporating; full panel genetic testing, OFA’s, using puppy culture protocol, Aptitude testing pups etc. and desire to learn more about the Service Dog world.
    I think I’ve all but ruled out donating SD prospects to programs because I have yet to find one that doesn’t require me releasing all rights of the dog over to them and I will never place a puppy without the ability to stay in contact with their owner.
    So, I am looking for helpful information to better place puppies into owner trained homes or one that will choose a puppy from me and go through a training program with the pup.
    I have currently placed 4 pups in the past 3 years as potential ESA/SD prospects and 2 of them are doing wonderful, 1 was returned to me at 6 months and rehomed as a pet with a very knowledgeable handler due to significant reactivity that didn’t pop up til 3 to 4 months of age and the other was rehomed at 9 months as a pet/companion due to lack of drive ( he turned out to be just too chill and would make an excellent therapy dog ).
    I had 2 pups from my last litter that tested as potential SD prospects, but I didn’t have any families that desired a male prospect… and its a good thing because my top prospect changed significantly between the 7 week old testing date and 3.5 months old. ( note worthy, he was still with me at the time, he had not been placed so i know firsthand he had no negative experiences.) He became significantly reactive towards strangers and unfamiliar dogs and was placed with a wonderful woman that has his half sister and trains her dogs through an amazing K9 board and train program using positive reinforcement and he is now doing absolutely amazing.
    What I am hoping to learn from you is… 1. What age do trainers typically eval and test prospects? 2. How normal is it to see dramatic aptitude changes at 3 to 4 months of age? I’ve been hearing it’s pretty common, but would like to hear from an SD trainers perspective. 3. At what age do you generally know a puppy is a wash. 4. How can I best prepare my puppies and families for this journey? 5. How can I best support them long term?
    I am so looking forward to a response and learning all I can to establish better success in my program. Thank you!


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