shepherd dog

Selecting a Service Dog Puppy

When it comes to Service Dogs, selecting the right animal is always important. It is often hard to know how to select a dog when wishing to owner train or buy a puppy to send to a training organisation. Here I will discuss some of the techniques and tests used to select dogs as suitable Service Animal candidates. Please note that there are MANY different tests and theories on how to best select a suitable dog. This guide will not list everything; it will be a resource that aims to educate and aid handlers in some of the important tests that aid Service Dog selection. Not every dog that passes these tests will necessarily have what it takes to be a Service Dog. The wash-out rate for Service Dogs is incredibly high- especially when they are required to do complex tasks such as alerting to seizures and drops in blood sugar.

Whilst this post specifies that the tests are for selecting a Service Dog puppy as a prospect, the majority of these tests can also be used to assess fully grown dogs such as those in shelters that you may be considering as your Service Dog partner. 

WHAT BREED?

Any breed can be a Service Dog. Despite this, there are some important issues to consider when thinking of getting breeds that do not necessarily fit the conventional Service Dog stereotype such as Labs, Retrievers and Poodles.

  • Access issues. Unusual breeds of Service Animal are often prone to more Public Access challenges due to standing out and not matching the stereotypes that people have in their minds.
  • Suitability. If you need a mobility dog, it doesn’t make sense to have a Chihuahua as your Service Dog. Make sure that the breed you select is capable of performing the tasks that you need it to.
  • Health issues and lifespan. Whilst some larger breeds such as Great Danes are used as Service Dogs, they have a shorter lifespan. Training a Service Dog is time consuming and expensive so it makes sense to get a Service Animal that will be healthy and live for a good amount of time.
  • Breed Traits. This is not always a highly limiting factor, but it is something that is definitely worth considering. Some dogs such as Huskies and Shiba Inus have high energy levels and are renowned for taking their time to learn tasks. Whilst it is good to acknowledge that there are exceptions to every rule, it doesn’t hurt to consider breed characteristics that may affect your dog’s ability to perform tasks successfully. Breeds such as German Shepherds are highly intelligent and are becoming more popular as Service Dogs, however their guarding instinct is a common cause for failing Public Access tests due to growling and being overprotective of their handler. When selecting the breed of your dog, be sure to investigate what common traits they possess and how you plan to tackle these in training to avoid issues.
  • Personal Requirements. Are you willing and able to groom a longhaired dog daily? If not, then you should not get a Service Dog that requires regular grooming. Do you have allergies to dogs? If you do, consider looking into breeds that are better for those who have dog allergies (such as Poodles).

TESTS

Most Service Dog organisations perform tests such as those listed below when the puppies reach 7-8 weeks of age. These tests do not fully determine characteristics such as temperament since the dog is still developing. The tests aim to assess natural instincts that make a dog more likely to be successful in training such as their food drive, attention to the handler and recall abilities. It is often good to go with a breeder that has either bred Service Dogs before or has breeding dogs from Service Dog lines. It has been proven that dogs who do well in these tests and are successful Service Animals are more likely to have offspring that are also highly suitable and successful in the Service Dog field. These tests should be performed with each puppy from the litter being separated from its littermates and other animals to avoid distraction.

  • Noise/Recovery Test- Drop an object that will make a loud noise (such as a metallic food bowl). Assess the dog’s reaction and how quickly it recovers from the experience. Commonly the dog may react to the sound and jump but it is how the dog chooses to recover and approach the situation that is most important. Curiosity and sniffing of the object is a positive sign, fearfulness and running away is not desirable.
  • Lap Test- Put the puppy on your lap. Observe its body language and how much it relaxes. If the dog relaxes and responds by making eye contact or trying to reach your face for attention this is desirable. If the dog cowers and tries to get off your lap, it does not pass this particular test.
  • Sociability- Put the puppy by your feet and pet it. If it stays by your side, offers eye contact and enjoys the interaction it passes. It is also acceptable for the dog to stay by your side for attention, leave to explore before returning for more affection. If the puppy runs away or seems nervous, cowering or shivering as it receives affection, this is undesirable.
  • Recall- Have the breeder or another person move the puppy a few steps away. Call out to the puppy to get it to come over to you. If the puppy comes over with no hesitation this is a very good sign. If the pup takes a little more persuasion but eventually comes this is also alright. If the pup ignores you entirely or wanders off it is considered as a fail for this test.
  • Prey Drive- Have a toy such as a rope and drag it around on the floor. If the dog grabs the toy and shows curiosity in chasing after it, this is a good sign. If the dog behaves in an overly aggressive manner or is fearful/disinterested of the toy, this is an undesirable result. It is important not to select a dog that has a huge prey drive for Service Dog work, however it is good to select a dog that has a healthy degree of curiosity and is willing to work and show interest.
  • Retrieve Test- Scrunch up some paper into a ball and throw it a short distance away. If the dog picks it up and brings it back to you this is a great result. If the dog picks it up and brings it part-way back to you this is also good. If the dog runs over to the toy but does not pick it up or return with it, this is still a good sign of curiosity, but not as good as the first two reactions. The dog fails this test if it simply watches the ball without reacting to it or ignores the action completely.
  • Hearing/Curiosity test- Use a squeaker toy to initiate the pup’s interest. This test is also a simple hearing test. If the dog comes over to investigate the squeak, this is a good sign. If the pup fails to turn or turns but does not come over to investigate after more squeaks this classes as a fail for this test.
  • Tug Test- With a rope toy, initiate some simple play. This test is important for dogs that are going on to be mobility dog performing tasks such a pulling open doors. Desirable reactions include: latching onto the toy and tugging or holding onto the toy briefly before letting go. Less desirable reactions include showing interest in the toy but not knowing what to do and ignoring the toy.
  • Food Drive- Place some high reward food such as meat between your fingers and test the dog’s interest in it. Desirable reactions are: sniffing and working to try to get the food with its tongue, sniffing and trying to get the food before eventually giving up. Undesirable reactions include showing little to no interest in the food, showing no real desire to get it from between your fingers.
  • Willingness to work- Get the dog’s attention with some high reward food such as meat. Then place this food underneath a small container whilst the dog is watching. If the dog starts sniffing at the container and trying to get to the food underneath, this is a good sign. This test aims to see how much the dog is willing to work for a reward. Poor results include ignoring the container or showing no interest in getting to the food underneath.
  • Unusual Interaction Test- Get an assistant to start waving their arms around whilst shouting and causing a scene. Service Dogs have to be used to working around a variety of different people. This test aims to assess how they cope with unusual people and situations. A good reaction includes: curiosity, watching and wagging the tail. A bad reaction includes: fear, signs of wanting to escape the person and growling or aggressive behaviours.