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Picking a new puppy can be an exciting time. Picking a service dog puppy can be downright terrifying! Endless possibilities run through your head of what could go wrong: What if he ends up hating strangers? Becomes aggressive? Is difficult to train? And among the most tragic – what if he’s absolutely perfect… but develops some illness, forcefully retiring him early? Sadly, when picking a service dog puppy (or any puppy for that matter) all of the above, and more, can happen. So what can you do to mitigate those risks as far as possible?
One of the greatest things about getting a dog from a young age is that you can control as much of their early experiences as possible. These early experiences can have a profound effect on who your dog becomes and how he responds to various situations later on. In addition, you are able to introduce and desensitise him to scenarios that will become a regular occurrence in his life as a service dog, such as strangers, children, other dogs, cars, buses, bicycles, sirens and much more.
Furthermore, assuming you’re going the breeder route, you also control who your puppies parents and breeders are. We go into this later on, but where your puppy comes from can be a huge predictor of where he will go.
The drawbacks to picking a puppy for service work
While being able to control their early experiences and training is a massive advantage, it can also be incredibly draining. You’re back at the drawing board ironing out typical puppy behaviours like house-soiling, incessant nipping, inappropriate chewing, and general over-excitability. At the same time, you’re trying to train new behaviours like walking nicely on lead and politely greeting strangers. Raising a puppy takes a monumental amount of effort, time, and money. However, if you’ve done your job well, the reward at the end is well worth it.
Another point that people often overlook is that it is rather tricky to predict what sort of dog your puppy will become. Puppies generally behave quite similarly – curious, bouncy, friendly and energetic. It can be difficult to tell at this stage what physical and temperamental weaknesses are hidden, and if they really have what it takes to assist someone with a disability down the road. Further down we look at a few strategies trainers and behaviourists have been know to use when evaluating service dog candidates to improve the chance of picking a winner.
Furthermore, it can take around 2 years to fully train a service dog. This often starts well after the puppy stage. Can you wait 2-4 years until your puppy is old enough and big enough to start being trained for their specialised tasks?
What to consider when picking your service dog puppy
First of all, you want to write down everything that you would require a service dog to do for you. A few things to think about:
Will this puppy need to help with mobility when they’re older? A larger breed will be essential for bracing or pulling.
Do you, or does anyone else in your home, have allergies? There’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, but often allergy sufferers have an easier time with dogs who grow their hair, like poodles, as opposed to shedding fur.
On that note, how much fur is too much? Would you find it therapeutic to regularly groom a long-haired dog, or would you prefer a wash-and-wear type of partner?
In addition, how much exercise can you offer your dog? While all breeds require regular activity, some have lower needs than others. On the other hand, if you’re very active, you may enjoy having an athletic partner to join you on your adventures.
Another essential point is the temperament – how social, dependent, trainable and confident do you want or need your dog to be. Every dog is an individual, but between the different breeds, there are definitely more predictable traits. Sporting dogs like retrievers are notoriously people focused, making them highly trainable, while terriers have been bred to hunt without the help or direction of their handlers, allowing them to be more independent.
How to pick the right puppy for service work
First of all, you absolutely want to pick your future service dog with the help of an experienced service dog trainer, breeder or similar expert. They often have a keen sense for these things and know exactly what to look for. The following information is purely to help you make a more educated decision because nothing beats having a second pair of experienced, unbiased eyes there with you.
Another point worth keeping in mind is that the behaviour of the animals you’re looking it is merely a snapshot in time. There’s no telling whether a puppy or parents was having an off day – whether mildly injured, sleepy or just generally not a good representation of normal selves.
Look at the breeder
How long have they been breeding for? Not everyone who’s been breeding for decades is necessarily trustworthy, however, someone who’s on their first litter still has a few mistakes to make and when picking a service dog, you’d best leave it to the pros.
How do they pick their breeding pairs? Show dog breeders are notorious for choosing looks as their number one reason to breed. Backyard breeders (aka BYBs) often don’t have any good reason for breeding at all apart from dollars. The trouble with both of these scenarios is that it means temperament, health and sound physical structure are overlooked, and you could end up with a beautiful mess of a dog, or worse – having to put down your future service dog at a young age due to genetic disease or weak temperament.
This is not true for all show breeders, however. All you have to do is ask your breeder how they choose their dams and sires. What do they value? Appearance? Health? Temperament? Working ability? The breeder whose values align most with yours will be the best breeder for you.
On that note, do they health screen their breeding dogs? Each breed has their own list of conditions that they’re susceptible to. The best breeders screen not only temperament but also genetic diseases. This helps ensure that their puppies live long healthy lives, free of pain and suffering. The last thing you want is a wonderful service dog candidate who has to be pulled from the program due to a health condition that could have been prevented or screened for.
In addition, how do they raise their puppies? Good breeders are well aware of the impact early experiences have on puppies and do their best to set a great foundation for future owners. They expose their pups to all sorts of new things, like different textures, loud noises, children, other animals, strangers, cars and so on. They often also start early stage house-training so that you have a semi housebroken puppy by the time he gets to your home. Most of all, they ensure that the puppies are on a well-balanced diet, up to date on worming and vaccinations and don’t go to their new homes before 8-9weeks old.
They earn major extra points if any of their puppies have gone off to successfully become service dogs in the past. This is ideal, however, there may not be many breeders of your chosen breed specialising in breeding for service programs, so it is certainly not essential.
As we hinted at earlier, parents (in particular the mother) are a good predictor of how the puppies will turn out as adults. Temperament in not just shaped by experiences, but also heavily influenced by genetics. If either of the parents show innate behaviours that you think are detrimental to being a service dog, don’t just assume your puppy won’t be that way because you’ll raise him differently. Huge red flags would be fear and aggression, particularly towards people or children. Keep in mind that you will be taking this animal with you in public, and you need to pick a service dog puppy who will have an absolutely bulletproof temperament. On the flip side, if you see behaviours that would be really beneficial, such as strong attention to their handler, calmness and neutral behaviour towards strangers, that’s a good sign.
As we mentioned earlier, parents screened for genetic diseases would be a requirement when you’re putting so much time and effort into your puppy. If they have successfully bred pups for service work in the past, then you know you’re heading in the right direction.
Look at the puppies
Finally, we get to look at the wriggly little bundles! Now, as we said earlier, it’s actually very difficult to predict a puppy’s suitability for future service work. The information you’d get from the following tests is really only a glimpse of the puppy’s potential. If they score badly, it does not mean they wouldn’t make a good candidate, and similarly, if they do well it doesn’t mean they’re a definite winner. Consider performing these exercises more than once over the course of a few weeks.
Studies done in the 1950s showed that there is a high chance of a puppy successfully completing guide dog training school if he does well in a retrieving exercise.
Simply grab an item that would appeal to the puppy such as a sock or piece of paper, tease them with it a bit to get them interested, and then toss it. You can coax them a bit, and repeat the exercise three times to get an idea of their typical behaviour.
If he makes no effort at all to go after it, and you’re sure there are no sight issues, this puppy would score poorly. If he chases after it but runs away with it to keep it from you, he scores better. Full marks go to the puppy who runs after the item and brings it back. Dropping it on their way back to you is still a good outcome.
The point of this exercise isn’t to actually test the puppy’s ability to retrieve because this can be taught to any dog. What the experimenters found was that puppies who naturally want to retrieve tend to become more biddable adults, consequently making them more handler focused, more eager to please and ultimately easier to train.
Recovery from being startled
Some dogs have higher than normal sound sensitivity, while others are naturally more fearful to new experiences. Falling objects and loud noises would be a common occurrence in the life of a service dog, and it would be unfair to subject them to something they find so unpleasant on such a regular basis. Whether you notice high sound sensitivity or general lack of being able to recover, you want to avoid picking a puppy that would struggle with the unpredictability of service dog life.
When he’s looking away, drop a metal pot lid or pan on a hard surface so that it make a loud clatter a few steps away from where he’s standing.
If he does not respond at all, try again. If he consistently does not react, he may be deaf. Cowering, peeing or running in fear means he would probably not be someone’s first choice for a service dog puppy. A great response would be if he gets a bit of a fright but quickly recovers. An A+ reaction would be a mild startle, followed by curiosity – wanting to sniff and investigate, or hearing the object fall (you’ll notice his ears shift, maybe a tail wag), but not even being bothered at all. These puppies may grow to become confident adults who can handle the hustle and bustle of public life or loud noises at home.
Occasionally, people may accidentally step on your service dog’s paw, or you bump him with your wheelchair. Children can be especially clumsy, and not everyone watches what their kids are getting up to in public. Because accidents are a bound to happen, you need a dog who can handle the odd bump or yank without overreacting.
Pick up the puppy’s paw and give a quick pinch between his toes.
If he screams, runs away and avoids coming back, he may have high body sensitivity and would not fair well with regular accidents. A more acceptable response would be a yelp or pulling away his paw, maybe even taking a few steps back, but quickly ‘forgiving’ you. If he comes back for more cuddles, without a grudge, that’s a promising sign.
A few more
There are other exercises that people like to perform, such as testing if the puppy naturally wants to follow you as you walk away, settles quickly when you hold them, and noticing which pup in the litter sticks to you like glue. These can work as indicators too, but retrieving, noise sensitivity and forgiveness appear to show more innate natures and physical capabilities, whereas other behaviours could be transient, and dependent on the pup’s mood that day.
So far we’ve only spoken about purebred puppies coming from reputable breeders. Rescuing a dog is one of the most selfless and rewarding experiences imaginable, and may suit you just fine. Try to keep in mind, however, all the situations that your service dog will have to be able to handle and accept.
Unfortunately, many shelter dogs’ histories are a mystery. You have no idea what negative experiences they’ve had, and when it may surface. Dogs in shelters also tend to mask their true natures due to being in a such a stressful environment. If you’re choosing a mixed breed puppy it’s even more of a risk, because you have no idea what breeds and traits are in their genetic makeup, or what sort of dog they could become. That’s a lot of time, training and energy to spend on a gamble! Ultimately it is your decision where your dog comes from, and a shelter or rescue dog may be exactly what both of you needed.
Initially, picking a service dog puppy will take a lot of patience and research. You may have to visit many breeders and look at many litters. However, choosing the right dog from the beginning will save you even more in heartache and disappointment. Have you picked a winning service dog puppy before? What worked for you?
References and recommended reading:
- Pernilla Foyer, Erik Wilsson, Dominic Wright and Per Jensen, Early experiences modulate stress coping in a population of German shepherd dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2013; 146, 1-4, 79-87
- Appleby, D. Puppy Socialisation and Habituation (Part 1) Why is it Necessary?. Association of Pet Behvaiour Counsellors. Retrieved from http://www.apbc.org.uk/
- Goddard, M. E., Beilharz, R. G. (1986). Early prediction of adult behaviour in potential guide dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 15(3), 247-260.
- E. Wilsson, P.-E. Sundgren (1998). Behaviour test for eight-week old puppies: Heritabilities of tested behavior traits and its correspondence to later behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 58(1), 151–162.
- E. Wilsson, P.-E. Sundgren (1997). The use of a behaviour test for selection of dogs for service and breeding. II. Heritability for tested parameters and effect of selection based on service dog characteristics. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 54 (2), 235–241.