Friday, January 2, 2009

3F Choosing a Breed for a Service Dog


Question: 
How do I choose a large breed dog for my needs? I was considering German Shepherd Dogs but have been advised against them for many reasons. I need a dog that is sensitive to me as I need a Psych Service Dog.

Answer:
The key thing about any breed of dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle. If a dog doesn't fit into your life, it won't work overall. 


Another thing to look at is what specific tasks are you hoping the dog will do for you. Obviously, the dog will need to be able to physically do the tasks and you want to choose one that can be sensitive enough to be connected. 

Any of the gun dog breeds generally could do well as they are sensitive and love to work with their person. A Golden Retreiver, Labrador Retriever, German Short-Hair Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla or Brittany might be a few breeds to look at. A Standard Poodle might be another dog that is sensitive but level-headed.

One thing to be aware of is that in many breeds, there is a difference between the hunting lines and the conformation lines.  Look at the specific lines they come from and what they have been bred to do and what titles they have. Hunting lines alone tend to need more exercise than those from conformation lines. A great example of this is the Golden Retreiver. There are field lines can be very high energy dogs who need much daily exercise, and then there are conformation Goldens like the dog off "Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey" with Michael J Fox who are more laid back for both exercise and temperament. I've had two of the latter and they were wonderful family pets and made great therapy dogs as they loved people and were sensitive to their moods. 


Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breed. This dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, managers, and co-workers interact with you.  A friend of mine noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retried her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. He was actually a very people social dog but people's perspectives do affect their interactions. If you get an unusual breed, you will be stopped frequently to be asked "What kind of dog is that?" which you may or may not be comfortable of have time to do.

Go meet the actual breeds! 
Go to dog shows and meet breeders of your chosen breeds. Talk to them, interact with the adult dogs.
Find out if they possess the characteristics you need in a service dog and if you could live with the general nature, grooming needs, exercise etc of the breed. What are the pros, cones and health issues of the breed for your specific needs?

Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Check out dogs at dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn't ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. Check out a previous post on temperament tests of young adult dogs and puppies.

A BIG TIP: If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from. Breeders interpretations of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things.Their definition of 'sensitive' or 'low exercise needs' may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them. Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you. Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight.  Basically this may limit you to pups that are within a days drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set her way back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.