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Finding a service dog candidate can be tiring and stressful. How can you tell if they’ll be able to learn and behave the way you need them to? If you’re still on the fence about whether you’d prefer a puppy, take a look at our How to Pick a Service Dog Puppy post. If you’re definitely looking at older dogs, read ahead to learn how to judge a potential service dog the way an expert would.
The benefits of choosing an older dog for service work
First of all, you won’t have to lose sleep over typical puppy troubles like house-training, nipping and chewing up furniture. Dogs over a year old are often out of this stage, making your life much easier.
In addition, your new dog may even come to you partially trained and well socialised. Service dogs need to be safe and neutral towards the general public, including strangers, children, other dogs and vehicles. It would be a huge advantage, and save you an incredible amount of time if the service dog candidate comes from a background where they were regularly exposed to a variety of people and noises.
Unlike puppies, an adult dog’s temperament is pretty well set. Essentially this means that what you see is what you get. You won’t find out two years down the line that your service dog prospect is in fact terrified of children, and needs extensive behavioural rehabilitation. Similarly, an adult dog’s activity needs will be reasonably fixed too, which means you can find a dog who matches your own requirements quite closely.
Finally, and perhaps the most relevant, older service dog candidates can being training immediately.
The drawbacks of choosing an older dog for service work
By getting an older dog you indeed skip the trying puppy stage, however, this also means that you weren’t able to shape their early experiences. If you know the candidate’s history, then that’s great! If you don’t, it will take a bit of time and effort to learn how they feel and respond to different scenarios. Some ‘triggers’ may be very obscure, and show up later down the line.
In addition, you wouldn’t have been able to desensitise them from a young age to the situations that will be important in their work as service dogs. As a result, you may have to spend the first few months going through desensitisation exercises to get them comfortable working with you in public. If you’ve chosen a dog with a solid temperament, this should only be a temporary issue (if an issue at all)
Since it can take up to two years to fully train a service dog, you have to factor in the expected lifespan of your candidate, and how much time they should have left. Working dogs often retire before their golden years. If your service dog candidate is quite advanced in age, they may not be able to work for as long, therefore forcing you to go through the process of selecting and training a service dog all over again in a shorter time-span. Because of this, you should try to look at prospects who are no older than 2.
What to consider in a service dog candidate
As we suggested in picking out a service dog puppy, write down all the tasks you would like your service dog to perform for you to help mitigate your disability. Consider the following to help you along with your needs:
How big should your service dog be?
Will you require a dog to aid balance, and help with mobility? A larger breed (60-70+ pounds) would definitely be best – one who can take the weight of an adult without trouble. Alternatively, does size have no relevance with your needs? Smaller breeds are generally cheaper to keep – they eat less, vet bills lower, and they make smaller messes day-to-day.
Speaking of mess, how do you feel about dog hair?
Dogs come in a variety of coat types and lengths – long, short, medium, smooth, curly, wiry, double-coated, single-coated and many in-between – all with variable levels of shedding.
Would you enjoy having a dog who needs regular grooming, or do you think you’d prefer a low maintenance coat? In addition, how do you feel about shedding? Some breeds shed more than others, and if you or someone in your home suffers from allergies, or just hates having dog hair everywhere, the amount of shedding will be an important consideration.
One of the great things about choosing an adult dog is that you will already know (more or less) what their activity needs are. Consider how much energy you could handle, and find dogs who would be a good fit. Even within breeds, there can be a huge variation in exercise requirements, so this is something you would want to judge on a case-by-case basis.
Perhaps most of all, what sort of temperament would be best for your needs?
An individual dog’s temperament is possibly the most essential thing to get right when it comes to judging your service dog candidates. In order to be allowed public access, your service dog needs to be safe and neutral. They can not show any signs of aggression and must be under control at all times.
All dogs can potentially be trained as service dogs, but some breeds have dispositions that make them more suited to this sort of work. With over 200 registered dog breeds in the US, it can be daunting trying to figure out which breed, or mix, might have the perfect combination of traits you’re after. A good place to start is by deciding which AKC Group is for you, then you can look at the specific breeds within those groups to refine your search.
How to pick the right service dog candidate
If you’re looking for an adult dog from a breeder, have a read of Look At The Breeder from our service puppy post, as the same rules still apply – careful selection of parents, health testing, solid rearing practices and proper socialisation.
Ultimately, whether you’re looking at a breeder’s dog, a shelter dog, or someone’s family pet that needs to be rehomed, the most important thing to be focusing on is their temperament and general suitability for service work. For this reason, we highly recommend that you seek a service dog candidate with the help of an experienced dog trainer or similar expert. They have been working directly with dogs for enough time that they can tell pretty quickly whether your prospect has potential. Furthermore, it gives you another set of experienced eyes – they may notice things you don’t.
Keep in mind, you will be doing the following exercises with an unfamiliar dog, who is also unfamiliar with you. Use caution and common sense, perhaps start out using a muzzle if the dog’s history is particularly unknown. All the more reason to do this under the supervision of a professional trainer.
How to test
In addition to the puppy aptitude tests shared in another post:
Take your service dog candidate out for a car ride, and see how they fair. Some dogs get severe car sickness which can be difficult to overcome. Ideally, you’d like to select a dog who will tolerate regular travel.
In addition to testing motion sickness, you also want to see how the dog behaves in unfamiliar, preferably busy, situations.
See if they’ll take food from you once you’ve reached your destination. When dogs are stressed they stop eating. Taking food from you is a good sign, and means they’re probably not overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds.
Start patting and rubbing the dog, eventually working your way all over their body. It is very important that they tolerate being touched, and even hugged. Strangers, and children especially, can surprise your dog while he’s working (rude as it is), and a dog who snaps when touched would be a liability.
Evaluate how he responds to startling noises and unexpected events, like throwing your keys on the ground when he isn’t looking and popping open an umbrella. Ideally, he gets a bit of a fright and then recovers. Sniffing the item, or even just glancing at it are good signs.
If all is going well, start allowing him to meet other people, preferably of varying shapes and sizes. He should be confident and amiable. A bit of excitement is forgivable if you can get him calm again quickly. Backing away, or any signs of avoidance would not be a good sign.
You want to see how your candidate behaves around other dogs too. They don’t need to play or become friends, all you’re looking at is whether your dog becomes overexcited, fearful or aggressive around dogs, as these are difficult to overcome. A service dog candidate who is neutral, with relaxed body language – maybe a glance and a tail wag, but otherwise isn’t fussed – would be first prize.
You’re actually in a great position if you’re judging your own dog because they will be far less of a mystery to you. You know their likes and dislikes, how they respond to different situations and stimuli, and how readily they take to training.
Perform all of the exercises from the puppy aptitude tests, as well as the activities above. If your dog passes with flying colours, congratulations are in order, because you may have a future service dog on your hands! If not, it doesn’t mean that’s the end of your dog’s future service career. Contact a well-regarded dog trainer or behaviourist and share with them what you’d like to achieve with your dog. They should be able to help you and your best friend get to the standard you’d need, assuming the issues are not deep rooted.
Looking at potential service dog candidates can be stressful, disappointing and downright draining. You’ll undoubtedly have to look at many dogs from many backgrounds. Keep your chin up – once you’ve found your perfect partner, you’ll know it was all worth it. Good luck on your search!
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.