Service dogs are amazing animals. They perform any number of tasks and many are responsible…
Understanding what makes a good service dog is helpful before you ever consider training your faithful friend for the job. That’s because in many ways service dogs are born, not “made.” Successful service dogs have a disposition that makes them well-suited to their particular job. And that natural fit also makes them more likely to love and succeed at their work—which is just as critical for their performance as it is for humans!
First, let’s look at what service dogs are. As the IACP (International Association of Canine Professionals) states: “The mission of a trained service animal is to help its handler accomplish activities of daily living (ADL’s) and is specially trained to assist a person with a disability.”
Service Dogs vs. Working Dogs
Service dogs: the work they do directly mitigates their human’s disability. The ADA classifies disabilities in a variety of ways: physical, sensory, intellectual, psychiatric, or other forms of mental disability. Service dogs are specifically trained to support their handler’s area of need, such as:
- Guide dogs or signal (hearing) dogs help the visually- or hearing-impaired live fuller, safer lives.
- Psychiatric dogs and autism assistance dogs are trained to recognize and respond to episodes. They also alert their handlers to critical situations.
- Other service dogs help with physical manipulation tasks: e.g., carrying and fetching items, pulling wheelchairs, opening doors, and turning light switches off and on.
Working dogs: are trained to use their canine senses and talents to take on jobs their humans are less equipped for, or to enhance or supplement their humans’ abilities, for example:
- Herding and hunting dogs.
- Police/military dogs.
- Detection dogs (trained to sniff out explosives, drugs, or even cancers and allergies).
- Search-and-rescue dogs.
Essential Service Dog Traits
How do you know if your dog might be well-suited to becoming a service animal?
- A balanced disposition: calm, yet energetic; neither too shy nor too intrusive.
- Genuinely enjoys people and is anxious to please.
- Easy-going, patient and undisturbed by being touched or tugged at by strangers or children.
- Able to focus on tasks or people despite distractions (like food or noises).
- Retains their calm confidence even when his/her humans seem agitated.
Not all these traits may be fully developed when training begins, but really blossom with practice and attention. That’s one reason that it’s helpful to have someone knowledgeable meet and get to know your dog as part of the preparation process before getting seriously underway in a service dog training program.
What kind of dog makes the best service dog?
While there are some breeds that, through their DNA and long breeding history, tend to be better suited to Service roles, the most critical factor in their success is rooted in each dog’s disposition. That said, the breeds you’ll often find in service roles include:
- Labrador retriever
- Golden retriever
- German shepherd
- Border Collie
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Bernese Mountain Dog
How long does service dog training take?
Each dog is different, and it’s important to use both the dog’s abilities, and then real-world practice with his/her handler and ultimate human partner, as the true guide. We advise our clients to plan on two years’ training.
Have more questions about training? Is there a person in your life who could benefit from having or training a service canine? Now that you know what makes a good service dog, is there one in your life that you feel is born to serve? Contact us for information and an application.
White Mountain College for Pets’ own Mike Robertson is a member of the Service Dog board of the International Association of Canine Professionals.