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  • Writer's pictureAnna Kouns

Can My Dog be a Service Dog?

by Anna McAndrews

I have been asked this question many times during my career as a service dog trainer. Many thoughts race through my mind as I hear people’s dreams for their wonderful companions, including, "Does this dog have what it takes?" You guessed it, the question that often comes up is this: "Can my dog be a service dog?" A dog’s natural intuition for body language combined with a desire to be with people and a natural loving, doggy empathy often catches a disabled owner’s attention. However, to be a service dog it takes a little more than good training and a sense of empathy. So now, you might ask, "How can you tell if my dog actually has what it takes to be a service dog?" I want to cover this in a blog because, in fact, some dogs are very special and have what it takes to rise to the ranks of the elect few. We want you to recognize this special animal. But not every dog wants to be a service dog as this job takes dedication and hard work. To become a service dog, a dog must be confident, friendly, not easily distracted, hard-working, and healthy. So before you invest endless hours of training time and spend all the money on special equipment and training services, you should really figure out if your dog is cut out for a career of service. Let’s begin and delve into what you should look for in a service dog candidate. To start, you want to make sure that your dog has no fear - nothing phases them. Not new places, not new people, nor people with disabilities using walkers and wheelchairs, people with multiple sclerosis, people with intellectual disabilities such as down syndrome or autism. The list goes on. If it seems that I am going overboard with explaining then it’s because I probably am. It is very important to cover all your bases because a Service Dog will go with you everywhere. Next think about all the places you might go once a service dog empowers your independence to venture out and do things that you want to do but you’ve never been able to do. Consider people and things you might see at a theme park (rollercoasters, trains, screaming kids). What about at the zoo? (Lions, bears, gorillas, elephants, etc). What about at the aquarium? (Sharks, penguins, sea lions). You should also consider the arcade, bowling alleys, and sports events.

Shy dogs lack the confidence to be good service dogs

Think of all the different people, things, and sounds you see in your daily routine and nonroutine activities. If your dog has shown any shyness at all in just his or her daily routine (not including parks and pet friendly stores), then your dog will definitely not be able to handle the stress of going to more exotic and unusual places. At this point, some may think, “I don’t go to very many places. I even work from home.” However, a lot can change in a year or even 2 to 5 years. It would be a tragedy for your lifestyle to change and for your dog not to be able to change with you. Other fears may include car washes, floating balloons, flags waving in the wind, metal grates on sidewalks, heights, elevators, city buses, and heavy machinery such as construction equipment. Don’t forget that your dog also has a close to supernatural sense of smell, so it is very possible that a new smell that you are not aware of might cause them anxiety.

After hearing all this, many people have insisted, “I can train my dog to not be fearful!” Unfortunately, when it comes to service dog candidates, you do not want a project or a challenge. This is because desensitization training can take years to see improvement, if any improvement at all. The handler must go slowly to prevent the dog from getting overwhelmed with all the added stresses. Many dogs that make progress with their anxiety revert right back to their previous fear behavior as soon as they experience too many stressors in close proximity to each other. All in all, you do not want a service dog that needs their own service dog (or service human). In addition to avoiding fear, you need to avoid dogs that show aggression. This includes resource guarding, territorial aggression, dog to dog aggression, dominance aggression, and any fear aggression. The same is true of aggression as it is of fear. As a matter of fact, any issue with a dog’s temperament will not improve enough with any amount of training. When looking for a service dog candidate, I ran across a beautiful and sweet Labrador retriever. She was great with kids, smart, and affectionate. To determine if she would be a good service dog candidate, we tested her by having her owner take her out on her leash outside their home. We walked another nonreactive dog down the road past the Labrador on the leash in her front yard. As soon as the Labrador saw the other dog, she began to bark and growl and lunge at the end of her leash. We questioned the owners who reported she would remain calm around other dogs when they took her on outings to the park and other dog friendly places. Even though the aggression was at home (territorial aggression), this dog would not make it through a service dog program because an aggressive dog in one area has a higher likelihood of becoming aggressive in another area. Who is to say that she may not eventually become territorial of her disabled owner? It is just too risky and too costly in time and money to try to take on an aggressive dog.

Aggressive dogs should never be service dogs

Prey drive and over-excitability are the third category of incompatible traits for service dog work. A service dog candidate should have a natural calmness around prey animals such as birds, squirrels, rabbits, and even cats. You probably don’t want to live a limited, frustrating life trying to avoid all the different critters. Just like the fear issue, you will see some improvement with training; however, for all the time, effort, and money put into getting the results you want with the excitable dog, you could have probably trained two or three service dogs that didn’t have these issues. Not only that, but you may not see improvement at all and if your prey-driven dog sees too many squirrels or birds in a short amount of time, they may revert back to pretrained excitability levels.

Dogs that have an interest in stalking or chasing

smaller animals are not good service dog candidates

Next on the list, your service dog candidate needs to be a motivated dog. You want a dog that wants to work. Some dogs love their couch and cuddles a little too much and you almost have to beg them to get up and help you out. Another example of a dog with a lack of motivation is a dog that is independent. Signs of an independent dog, include: a dog that frequently wanders off or will leave your yard if the gate is open. Other signs include a dog that is hard to convince to cuddle with you or a dog that does not come easily when called.

Finally, you should pick a healthy dog to be a service dog. This means choosing a breed that is not prone to health problems or a dog that is elderly. For example, someone with an anxiety disability might be tempted to choose a breed that is laid back and calm to cuddle with them and help reassure them; they might be tempted to choose a basset hound. However, this breed has a tendency to develop spinal issues due to their long backs and short limbs. In fact, the basset hound's elongated appearance is due to a genetic defect called dwarfism. These dogs have low bone density as well as many other associated issues and thus are injury prone. Besides the Basset hound, other breeds with dwarfism include the dauschund and the corgi. As you can imagine, you do not want a dog that you depend on to assist you with your disability to become injured and unable to help you. Other breeds that are injury or illness-prone include dogs with short, pushed-in noses which make breathing difficult for them. Some of these breeds include: boxers, bulldogs, Boston terriers, and pugs. Besides breed being an issue for a service dog, you want to consider age. Again, it takes 1-2 years of consistent training and potentially thousands of dollars in equipment and training fees to train a service dog. It simply is not worth it to train a 5 year old dog who will need to retire from service dog work at the age of 8-10 years.

A service dog should retire at the age of 8-10 years. In summary, when looking for a service dog candidate, you want to ask this very important question: Does my dog want to be a service dog? It is so important that your dog chooses their career. A service dog has to be loyal, kind, friendly, calm, obedient, hard-working, and healthy. If they are fearful, aggressive, over-excitable, or even just a couch potato, a life of service will be too stressful for them.

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