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 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 success 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, 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.