- Choosing Your Next Service Dog: A Primer
After all, professional service dog charities spend millions on breeding programs, health, and puppy raising. The dogs are usually bred from lines with a strong history of successful graduates. They are raised carefully according to the latest research (often funded by and run by the organization themselves), and then professionally trained.
Even with all of this, most schools report a success rate of 30-60%. Anything below 40% is considered a crisis, and anything above 50% is considered highly successful.
So, what are the chances of success if someone tries to train their own?
Well, from our client logs over the past five years, we'd say about 20%. That's a lot higher than we were expecting. It turns out that there are some benefits to owner training - no kennel environment, a stable attachment figure, and other stress-reducing factors that I think increase success rate.
But sometimes, no matter how hard the client works, the dog must become a pet.
We've relegated dogs to pet-status due to aggression, anxiety, sensory sensitivities, independence, phobias, dog-excitement, dog-aggression... and sometimes just because the dog made it very clear that they did not want this job.
Personality, physical ability, and interests all matter when choosing a job for someone. When you bring a puppy home and hope to make it a particular type of service dog, it's a bit like adopting a baby and deciding that they will grow up to be a doctor.
The average herding breed dog is going to want to chase things that run away, follow very precise directions, and enforce order on chaos. That's what they've been doing for generations - and not because they were trained to do it - because they come from a long line of dogs who loved to do just that, and were prized for those qualities.
The average toy breed is going to expect pampering and will not expect to work for a living - they've been the playthings of wealthy ladies for thousands of years. The only work they do is the occasional growl and snap at a handsy gentleman who tried to grope m'lady.
The average hound dog is going to want to tune you out, put their nose on the ground, and go off on a mission. They will be determined, independent, and exploratory - because the best hounds were just that.
So think carefully about what job you want the dog to do, and whether the dog you are considering shares your interests. Want a dog to retrieve items for you? You might want to consider a retriever. Want a dog to sniff out gluten? Consider a beagle or basset. Want a dog to snuggle you on cold nights and hang out with you in bed on bad pain days? Consider a pug.
Please don't get a border collie and tell them not to chase things, or a pick up a Great Pyrenees and tell them not to guard the house. You're asking them to change who they are for you - and most won't sell themselves out for any amount of treats.
If you're looking at a mix breed, don't go by how the dog looks - instead ask what the dog likes to do best. Are they a sniffer? A chaser? A lounger?
A service dog is called upon to go to many strange places, like hospitals full of beeping equipment and pained moans, airports full of crying children and rumbling baggage, fancy restaurants full of delicious smells and clinking wine glasses, and movie theatres full of painful explosions and even more painful Michael Bay dialogue.
Dogs who are highly sensitive to noise, smells, or unusual surfaces don't do well in these situations. Dogs who don't like to spend hours dozing under the table while you catch up with your friends don't do well in these situations. Dogs who struggle to adjust to new situations don't do well in these situations.
In every litter you have the bold and bossy one, the nervous one, the hyper one, and so on. You want to find the easy-going, go-with-the-flow one. Depending on the job, you may want higher energy (say for a hearing alert dog) or lower energy (say for a slow-moving mobility dog). Personalities are usually distinct and observable by 8 weeks old. Ask the person who lives with the puppies about their personalities and watch videos of the puppies interacting.
By two years of age, the dog's personality is apparent, and unlikely to change.
When a nervous dog ends up with a nervous handler, their mutual anxieties can snowball into an avalanche. If an impatient dog meets a handler with poor communication skills, there's going to be a lot of shouting and barking. When a bossy, exuberant dog meets a shrinking violet of a handler, things are going to go very badly wrong.
When service dog schools place their dogs, they don't just assign the dogs to whoever is on top of the waiting list. They consider and discuss the dog's personalities, the needs of each potential client, and the living situation. A dog who dislikes the city might do well in a rural environment with a client who rarely travels, but needs companionship and assistance to stay in their own home. A dog who loves to keep busy would be good for the client who has a hectic life that is all go-go-go. Swap those two dogs and you'd have a terrible situation.