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Evaluating Service Dog Candidates At the Shelter: 5 Traits to Look For

There are thousands of Service Dogs in the United States. Many of those Service Dogs graduated from programs or organizations, some were owner-trained, and still others trained and placed via other methods. For many owner trainers and programs, rescue dogs are selected to complete Service Dog training, to varying degrees of success.

It’s widely known that very few dogs are capable of enjoying and succeeding at Service Dog work. Even in Service Dog and Guide Dog programs that have well established breeding programs, the rate of failure can be high. It truly takes a unique and special temperament to flourish as a partner to a person with a disability, and while temperament is most important, there are lots of other factors that matter, too. Breed, gender and color aren’t important, but good health, genetics, structure are vital. If a dog isn’t bred for Service Dog work, and it has an unknown history or backstory, it can be very difficult to decide whether or not that dog should be considered for Service Dog work.Dog_in_animal_shelter_in_Washington,_Iowa

When it comes to evaluating rescue dogs or dogs at a shelter for Service Dog work, you must first keep in mind what disqualifies a dog from becoming a Service Dog in Training. If a dog exhibits any fear, timidity, reactive, aggression or showcases any kind of health or structural flaw and/or behavioral concerns, then that dog is *not* a candidate, all other factors aside. Never select a dog for Service Dog work with the belief that you can “fix” an inherent temperament flaw or issue. Generally speaking, if you have to fix it, then it isn’t a Service Dog candidate. There are exceptions, of course, as with anything, but they’re few and far between.

That being said, you’ve also got to remember that training and temperament are two very different things. If a behavior a dog is exhibiting is a natural behavior all dogs do (like pulling on the leash when excited or jumping up to greet), then it can be rectified with training. A happy, social dog with low touch sensitivity and an amazing willingness to interact who pulls on a leash might still be a candidate for Service Dog work – but a dog who scrambles away from strangers to cower at the end of the leash is not. One requires training to fix, and the other is an inherent temperament issue.

When evaluating any trait or tendency a dog has, ask yourself if puppies do it. Do puppies mouth? Yes. Do they typically snap, snarl or bite? No. Do puppies jump? Absolutely. Do they typically climb fences and walls? No, Malinois puppies excepted. 🙂 Do puppies take treats roughly? Bet your last dollar they do. Do they growl and snarl and protect food from anything approaching? Not usually. If a balanced, normal puppy would showcase a behavior or tendency or trait, then it’s possibly something that can be fixed with training.

Adult dogs aren’t automatically perfect because they’re adults. Puppies mouth, pull on leashes, jump, tangle up in people’s legs, grab food out of hands and many, many, many other things because they’re untrained. Adult dogs who have never been trained will also exhibit these behaviors. Your job is to look at the dog’s core temperament, not their instincts or base behaviors, and work to evaluate a dog’s suitability based on who they are, not what they do.

So, all of that being said, here are 5 things you can look for when evaluating shelter dogs or rescue dogs for Service Dog work. This is not a failsafe list; it’s just a general guide on things to keep your eye out for. Only 1 out of every 100 dogs is suitable as a Service Dog candidate, so just because a dog meets every one of these points doesn’t automatically mean they’ll successfully complete training. However, if Shelter Dog Undergoing Evaluationa dog does meet these points of criteria, it means that there’s a higher probability of success, and they should be evaluable further and with more depth.

1.) Evaluating Rescue Dogs For Service Dog Training: Age
When you’re evaluating a dog from a shelter or rescue organization, it’s very important to carefully consider the age of the dog. Evaluating puppies is an entirely different ballgame, so we’re only going to talk about adolescent and adult dogs here. It’s preferable that a rescue dog being evaluated for Service Dog suitability is a bit older. You want to be able to see their structure and temperament clearly, without the possibility that puberty or growing up will change things. As such, you should consider dogs within a few months of a year old to 2.5 years old. You don’t want a dog who is too old, because training takes a long time (months to years), and the working life of the dog is shortened significantly if they begin training too late in life.

2.) Evaluating Rescue Dogs For Service Dog Training: Health and Structure
The dog you’re looking at shouldn’t have any apparent health issues or concerns. This can be difficult to determine in a shelter environment, due to the dogs’ close proximity, varying health care standards and diets, or other factors. However, the dog in question shouldn’t have weepy eyes, gunky ears, sores or coat issues. Heavy shedding occurs often in shelters due to diet and stress levels, but the coat shouldn’t have bald spots, and there shouldn’t be lumps, bumps, or growths. Skeletal or muscular injuries disqualify a dog from Service Dog work, and a dog shouldn’t be overweight.

You need to see the dog move and run. You need to see the dog’s natural gait and movement style, and how they look when just being themselves. There should be absolutely no lameness, limping or oddities in gait. The back should be straight, and there should be good angulation in the shoulders so that there’s no limitations on how the legs move. The dog’s rear end should be well muscled, and appear to “drive” the dog forward when it runs. Dogs with flatter skulls (Boxers, bulldogs, lots of toy breeds) should typically not receive first consideration – there’s too much tendency towards breathing Shelter Dog Structure and Healthissues or fragile physiology.

3.) Evaluating Rescue Dogs For Service Dog Training: Noise and Cleanliness 
These are two of the very first things you should check when you first walk past a dog’s kennel. A dog who keeps a naturally clean space and who tends to be quiet is a huge, huge, huge plus. Service Dogs are supposed to be somewhat invisible while out working – they shouldn’t make noise of any kind, unless it’s trained for their task work and it’s performed on cue. When you first walk into a shelter kennel room, the barking is usually overwhelming. If you quietly walk through, though, you can oftentimes find one or two dogs who aren’t joining in the noise, and who are quietly relaxing in their kennel.

That’s a dog who is able to relax despite chaos and confusion, who has a high threshold for distractions and who is naturally able to settle. It’s vital to determine, though, once you find a quiet, relaxing dog, whether or not the dog is quiet because they’re naturally that way, or because they’re depressed. How willing is the dog to interact with you? Any tail thumping? Relaxed body language? If the dog is relaxed and readily comes forward to interact with the evaluator, definitely ask to spend some one on one time with said critter.

Next, look to see if a dog’s space is clean. Now, in a shelter environment, even house trained dogs may struggle to not toilet in their kennel, especially if there’s no dog walker program or exercise time. However, there’s a huge difference between a dog who potties in a corner of the cage and then makes an active effort to avoid it, and a so-called “dirty dog” who doesn’t care if they walk through it, track it onto their bed/blanket, play in it or otherwise showcase behaviors that say the dog doesn’t care about keeping a clean space. Check to see if there’s food thrown all over – messy eaters tend to be messy in other areas, too, and it again showcases a tendency towards not keeping a clean space.Service Dog Evaluation Play Style

4.) Evaluating Rescue Dogs For Service Dog Training: Important Traits
This is the most important piece of determining whether or not a dog will make a Service Dog candidate. Dogs who complete Service Dog training successfully typically have the following traits (not at all a comprehensive list):

  • No timidity, aggression, reactivity or fear issues
  • Not extremely submissive and not extremely strong willed
  • Super balanced, easy going, calm nature
  • Enjoys interaction with humans
  • Social, but not over the top
  • Able to focus on people, even if there’s stuff going on
  • Willingness to learn
  • Low Touch Sensitivity
  • High frustration threshold
  • Not over the top excited about toys or treats
  • Appropriately interacts with other dogs (no hackling, overstimulation, extremely pushy play, etc.)
  • No issues with other animals, including cats, birds or small animals
  • Ability to quietly relax in all environments
  • Travels readily and responds to new places, people and things with few signs of stress
  • Accepts guidance and containment and boundaries willingly and readily

That’s quite a number of things, and it’s by no means a complete list. Here’s what you look for once you take a (hopefully quiet, healthy appearing) dog out of their (hopefully clean) kennel. First, make sure the dog wants to be with people. Lots and lots and lots of dogs are aloof and independent. They could care less whether a person is there or not. Take the dog out on a leash to the designated meet and greet area, and let them get their sniffing out of the way, and then sit down in a chair (or on the ground, if you’re comfortable with the dog), and see what happens. A dog who enjoys the company of people will want to check in with you. They may not stay right by your side, but they’ll run out to sniff or play, and then return, or they’ll try to engage you, or they’ll get all up in your business wagging and being happy. In a nutshell, you want a dog who is more interested in YOU, the evaluator, than in things going on around them.

Second, test the dog’s response to treats and toys. You want a dog who readily takes food from your hand, who is willing to follow a lure, and who isn’t so happy to see food that they can’t contain themselves. Same with toys – being willing to play with toys is fine, but you absolutely do not want a dog who locks onto the fact that a toy is present and who can’t think or do anything else except try to play with the toy. Try luring the dog into sits or downs – does he readily follow the lure, or at least try to? How many times will the dog lure? You want a dog who is willing to continue to engage and who is able to stay on task, or who is at least willing to continue to try.

Third, make dead certain this dog doesn’t have issues with resource guarding, other dogs (including small ones) or small animals.

Evaluating Shelter Dogs For Service Dog WorkFourth, put the dog on leash, and just step on the end. Don’t say anything. Don’t try to direct the dog. Just stand quietly and wait. How long does it take for the dog to recognize it can’t go anywhere, to stop trying, and to just stand or sit quietly, or lie down? You want a dog who accepts boundaries readily and who doesn’t get easily frustrated. In a quiet location, with little going on, a dog who is on leash and who has a natural tendency to be a calm, relaxed sorta dog, will readily chill or settle.

Fifth, check the dog for touch sensitivity. Pet the dog all over his head, body, belly, legs and tail. Touch the ears. Lift them. Look at the teeth. Gentle rub the dog’s muzzle. Handle his feet. Gently pinch the skin between the toes. You need a dog who is comfortable with being touched all over, with a good pain tolerance, and isn’t reactive to touch.

5.) Evaluating Rescue Dogs For Service Dog Training: Final Considerations
In a nutshell, Service Dogs have to be stable, steady and calm in all situations and environments, readily able to learn, willing to interact with people for hours upon hours a day, possess the independence to perform task work without being guided through every single step, and have the intelligence to learn complicated behaviors. They have to be willing to do the same thing, day in and day out, and respond readily to guidance and cues.

Good Service Dogs start as good Service Dogs in Training. You can’t build a solid base of training on a poor temperament or structural foundation. If you have doubts, a dog probably isn’t right for Service Dog work. Trust your gut. Don’t think you can “fix” something; you shouldn’t have to. Look for someone who is quiet, relaxed, gentle, social, responsive and balanced. If you’re not sure, have a second evaluator take a look. Ask the behaviorist on site. Talk to any foster homes. Never listen to the enthusiastic “Oh, yeah, this dog would be a GREAT service dog; she’s so sweet!” There’s so much more required than just being sweet.

Don’t settle for a dog that’s “almost” what you want, because it’s very likely that dog will “almost” complete training. Be picky – the perfect dog is out there. 🙂

Have you ever evaluated shelter or rescue dogs for Service Dog work? What were you looking for? Is there anything you’d add to this list?



  • Cindy Sanford March 14, 2016

    Awhile ago I made a couple forms for selecting a service dog that are posted on my website: . I also have one that can be given to a person’s support network that details info on their service dog:, this is one I wished I’d had when caring for a friend’s service dog so I modified my board and train form. Maybe someone might be interested and find these helpful.

  • LizW March 15, 2016

    The only thing I would add is check to see how long the dog has been in a shelter environment. That can affect how the dog acts even if it isn’t depressed. My Therapy dog had been in and out of rescues and shelters for most of her life, and did start out shy to others. Within a month though her true personality showed.

  • Lauren August 12, 2017

    How many months is ‘a few months of a year’?

    • Anonymous October 25, 2021

      That means a few months before they are a year old

  • Winnipups October 27, 2021

    Should I really consider a service dog because my dog doesn’t seems to like the same thing, day in and day out, and respond readily to guidance and cues.


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