I specialize in helping people to train their own service dogs. While I love my work, the worst part is when I have to break the news — or confirm a client’s dreaded suspicion — that their dog will not be able to become a service dog and must be career-changed. To prevent these heartbreaking situations, I try to reach service-dog owner-trainers as early as possible in their process — ideally before they acquire a dog — to head off some of the most common problems.
Here are five common problems that lead to dogs not being able to work as service dogs. Each of these five could fill a book on their own, so I have not delved deeply into any of them. Please keep in mind that this article addresses large concepts with broad strokes. It is all generalizations. Consider each point merely food for thought and discussion with an experienced trainer that understands dog behavior and service dog training.
1. Acquiring the wrong breed
In the land of the American dream — where our cultural story is that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough — we don’t like to think that some dogs might not be well-suited to a job based simply on who they are or how they were born. However, with service dog selection, this denies a simple reality. Not every human can be an Olympic athlete, and not every dog can be a service dog. A service dog’s physical health and their temperament (sort of a combination of their personality and mental health) is the foundation from which everything else is built.
Breeds were developed by selectively choosing certain traits to be passed along and others to be avoided. While there are always major differences among individuals, hundreds of years of breeding does make a difference.
Generally speaking, a service dog candidate should be highly social with people and dogs; food-motivated; low-prey drive; relaxed, happy, and confident with strange and new things; not bothered by sudden or loud sounds; eager to work and train; and easily able to relax and nap anywhere, tolerating long stretches of boredom and inactivity. If this sounds like a lot of Labrador retrievers you’ve met, now you know why Labs are the overwhelming favorite of most of the largest and oldest assistance dog programs! Sporting breeds were bred to work cooperatively with people, to have low prey drive, and to tolerate unpleasant conditions with aplomb. Golden Retrievers are another sporting breed that tend to be popular with service dog programs and share many of these traits, as well as Standard Poodles for those looking for a hair coat.
The most common mistake I see with breed choice is owner-trainers thinking that because a service dog is a working dog, they should get a high-drive breed that loves to work, such as a Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, or Australian Cattle Dog. Dogs of these breeds are likely to have trouble relaxing, lying around and snoozing, doing nothing while their handler attends classes or waits hours at the ER or works at their desk. Another commonly problematic breed choice are some of the guarding breeds. Breeds that were developed to use aggressive displays to keep people or animals away may be likely to be aggressive or reactive to strangers or in strange environments. If you’re researching a breed, and the breed standard includes phrases such as “loyal,” “wary of strangers,” “aloof,” “courageous,” “protective,” “reserved,” “territorial,” etc., these are often euphemisms for dogs that are more likely to have a tendency toward reactivity with strangers. Since service dogs are constantly surrounded by strangers, if a dog is naturally uncomfortable with strangers, in many cases it can be very stressful on dog and handler alike just for the dog to tolerate, let alone be able to work well in those circumstances. Terrier and hound breeds are also lower probability SDiT material as they were bred to want to run off to chase critters — meaning they have not been bred to work cooperatively with people and they tend to have higher prey drive. Discussing the right breeds for a person’s future SDiT — including both what is generally important in a service dog and what the individual’s lifestyle, preferences, and needs are — is a big component of what I offer in a service dog pre-adoption consult.
Is it possible to successfully train a service dog from a nontraditional breed? Sure. I’ve done it myself. But you have to have a lot of other factors lined up, be able to select individuals that are the exception to what the breed was bred for, as well as be lucky. Since training a service dog is already a monumental task with a low probability for success, this tends to make things even more dicey. For most people, it makes sense to stack the odds in your favor with breed choice.
2. Going to the wrong breeder or other dog provider.
Even if you pick a likely breed, you still need to pick the right type of individual from that breed. One common mistake is to choose a dog from working lines, meaning that the particular breeder is breeding dogs to do what they were originally bred for (hunting, protection, herding, etc.) versus breeding dogs to be pets. We may think, “A service dog is a working dog, so I should get a dog that was bred to work,” but this is generally not true. The type of work a service dog does is usually very different from the work most breeds were selected for. For example, while Labrador Retrievers are generally a good choice for service dogs, working lines Labs were bred to hunt. Hunting dogs are high energy, bred to run through fields and jump into cold waters, to be out in the elements with the hunter for hours. Triple this energy level for working lines herding dogs! These days, Golden Retrievers that are bred for agility competition are also much too high octane for service dog work.
Contrast this with most service dogs. They may need to walk on a loose leash for a few minutes or an hour, then lie down and wait, and then maybe eventually do a task (retrieve something, alert to their handler’s medical condition, open or shut a door, etc.), and when that’s done, lie down and wait some more until doing another controlled walk. Most “working lines” or “performance” dogs from any breed will be way too intense and high energy for almost all service dog situations.
Also, it’s important to consider what type of work dogs are bred for. Some breeders of “working lines” German Shepherd Dogs market them as potential SDiTs. Working GSDs are generally bred for IPO (schutzhund or protection work) which means, among other things, being willing to bite people with maiming force (“some level of natural aggression and protective instinct”). That is not a good trait for a dog that will be in public constantly around unpredictable people, including children, who may run over to pet the doggy.
Trying to assessing whether a breeder or a dog on a PetFinder listing is the right match for you, based on their website or a phone conversation is really tricky. This is why I offer dog search support along with pre-adoption consultations. Becoming “literate” in what to search for in a rescue dog or a litter of puppies takes time, information, and skill. It makes a big difference to have guidance in the process.
3. Choosing with your heart, including “rescuing” a dog that is not an ideal candidate.
Wait! Before you post your angry comment, hear me out.
If your purpose in getting a service dog is that you need skilled assistance on an ongoing basis to function optimally, that is a big job. You want that job to go to someone who will love and thrive in that work and be able to do it well. You don’t want the job to go to someone who will be overwhelmed, stressed out, and cause disappointment and heartache for you. That’s not good for either of you.
Most dogs are not cut out for service work, by which I mean they are not happy in this work. It is our responsibility — to both dogs and people — to try to choose and train dogs as service dogs who will love it. See point #1 again for the type of dog that is likely to thrive as a service dog.
What happens if you arrive at the breeder’s house that sounded so good on the phone and looked so great online, but you are shocked to see that six-week-old puppy that has been raised in the cold, dirty garage — and the mother of the pups is tied out in the yard, barking, growling, and lunging at you? If you think, “I will save this puppy by taking her home and loving her and giving her a wonderful job,” that is a noble sentiment. Unfortunately, it may also be a source of regret for the decade to come if you spend thousands of both dollars and hours on behavior modification for a dog with severe behavior issues that will never be a service dog. You cannot undo genetics or a poor start in life. It is possible to help any dog become the best version of itself it can be, but it may not be fair to that dog to expect it to achieve elite level performance in the constantly changing landscape that we busy humans experience as normal.
The same applies to choosing the dog from the shelter or foster home that’s been there for weeks, months, or years, or has been returned several times. Or that is so shy, it is hiding in the back of its kennel. A behavior modification project and a future service-dog-in-training are not the same thing. If you really want to get a dog from rescue, be prepared to invest a lot of time and probably considerable expense — with the help of a trainer experienced in behavior assessment — in finding the needle in the haystack of the dog with the wonderfully stable temperament who is physically and behaviorally glowing with health, fitting the description of the ideal candidate in point #1 .
4. Economizing early in the process — while searching for the dog or during puppy raising and basic training.
Most people I speak to choose their dog without professional support and start training on their own, sometimes taking a puppy kindergarten and basic manners class. Their plan is to consult a service dog trainer once they’ve trained the basics inexpensively and are ready for task work. To put it bluntly, too often, by the time an owner-trainer consults with me, it is because there are serious issues to address — or for which intervention will not solve the problems.
Group classes are great, and I always recommend a well-run, positive puppy kindergarten for anyone raising a puppy — especially future SDiT puppies that need so much skilled socialization. But for service dog training, it is really not enough. It is too easy to overlook critical issues or make decisions early on that you will be trying to fix for months or years later.
There is only so much I can do if, by the time an owner-trainer contacts me, they have already chosen a breed that is unlikely to be suited to the job and/or acquired a dog whose individual temperament is a poor match. Then they have worked with a trainer that uses punitive methods (choke chains, shock collars, etc.) that have exacerbated fearful or reactive tendencies. Now that the dog has major problems, they will spend whatever it takes to try to “fix” the situation. Nowhere does the aphorism “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” better apply than in service dog training!
Even in less dire situations, you can save a lot of time and hassle by getting a training map on how to proceed at the beginning of your journey — rather than trying to retrace the route you’ve been driving for months. For example, it is often quite easy to avoid the problem of training a dog to do things that will interfere with long-term task work (such as training a dog needed for balance to do an auto-sit or punishing a dog for jumping up that will need to do deep-pressure therapy).
I know that in America, the land of DIY and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we like to think if we are resourceful and have a “can-do attitude” we don’t need to consult with professionals. After all, why spend money and time on things we can figure out for ourselves? That can work with a craft project or even fixing a car, but a dog is a living organism that cannot be “fixed” like an engine. Once a behavior or a negative emotional association is established, it can never be erased, only modified.
Becoming a service dog owner-trainer is truly akin to entering a new career. When was the last time you entered a career or profession and were great at it off the bat? Where you knew everything you needed to know and didn’t make significant mistakes? How about if you were trying to do that with no mentoring, classes, tutoring, etc.?
I have dedicated my life for 20 years to learning everything I possibly can about service dogs and their training, and I am still constantly amazed and humbled by how much I don’t know. While there is a lot you can learn from books, videos, and online discussions, there is also a lot you cannot learn that way. For one thing, a lot of the online information on service dogs is just plain wrong. I am often horrified by what clients tell me their groomer, vet, cousin, etc., told them they should or shouldn’t do with their dog. Even sometimes, unfortunately, what another trainer told them.
For another, dog training is a physical skill as well as a mental discipline. How well would you learn a new sport from the ground up from a book or online discussion? And for many people with disabilities, there are modifications to the process that are necessary or helpful to be successful. Individual modifications obviously require an individual approach that you rarely get from books, videos, and blog posts.
Lastly, working with dogs — both in training and even more so in evaluating a prospective dog — requires expertise in the ability to “read” dog body language and behavior in the moment and decide how to adjust training or whether to continue testing. This really requires a lot of hands-on experience with a lot of dogs — the more, the better.
5. Unreasonable expectations.
There are so many false expectations that lead to heartbreak. Here are just a few of the major categories…
Money. Training a service dog is a hugely expensive endeavor. If you are owner-training because you think it is more affordable than getting a program dog, you may be in for a rude shock. (Please read my post about the cost of service dog training for a lot more details.) If you can’t afford a Service Dog Consult, how will you afford the vet bill when your dog inevitably gets sick or injured? In the best case scenario, the vet bill will be comparable. More likely, it will be much higher. If you can’t afford the cost of caring for (let alone training) a service dog, you may be better off finding a different assistive technology or other solution than a service dog.
Time. Training a service dog is a full-time job. Really. Expect to dedicate most of your mental energy and a considerable amount of your physical time and energy to training and caring for this animal and turning it into a skilled assistant. (Please read my post about how long it takes to train a service dog for more details.) If you don’t have a lot of time to devote, it is almost guaranteed not to work. In that case, a program service dog or a non-dog solution for your disability may be the better options.
What is your dog capable of? Of course your dog loves you and loves treats, petting, praise, play. Does your dog love being around strangers? Does your dog love working for food more than running after squirrels, playing with other dogs, etc.? Does your dog enjoy going to places that are noisy and busy, with slippery floors and big moving things that he’s never seen before? Is your dog able to think and learn in these situations? If your dog could choose his career, would it be to go with you into constantly changing new situations, focusing only on you, choosing between either laying around doing nothing or focused manners, obedience, and task work?
What are you capable of? Do you love dog training? Do you have the physical and mental ability to train your dog every day, many hours every week, in a variety of situations? If not, do you have financial or family or community support to ensure someone else skilled and caring can do the parts you can’t do?
Five Ways to Prevent Heartbreak
What is the solution? Well, there are no guarantees. You can do everything right and still get unlucky with a dog that develops health or behavior problems. However, there is still quite a lot you can do to increase your chances of succeeding.
- Put in the work BEFORE you get your dog. Do the research and preparation before you even contact a breeder or start looking at rescue websites. Learn all there is to learn about service dogs and their training and what you need to do to set youself up to choose the dog that is most likely to succeed. It’s not just researching the breeds. It’s also researching the breeder or rescue — and knowing what to look for. Then meeting the breeder and her dogs or foster dog — and knowing what to look for. Then having the litter temperament tested or the dog assessed by an independent trainer who can evaluate them. AND, just as importantly, research the trainer, too! There are a lot of dog trainers who will not be the right match for you — even many service dog trainers. Get references, look for meaningful certifications, observe classes. If the person who is advising you is giving you bad advice, you’re not any better off than going it alone!
- Choose with your brain first, heart second. Pick the breed, age, and type of dog that is likely to succeed, not the one that is cute or reminds you of your childhood dog or that you saw being so brave on that TV program.
- Be PATIENT. Finding the right dog takes a long time and a lot of work. It can easily take a year or more.
- Be willing to walk away and start over. If you go through all the steps to find the right breed, trainer, litter or rescue, and it turns out the right puppy is not in that litter or that foster dog is not appropriate, see points #1, #2, and #3 again — make the tough (brain-powered) decision based on relevant information and then be prepared to wait some more.
- The best way to succeed with points #1, #2, #3, and #4 is to work with an objective advisor who can help you assess your needs and the breeds or individual dogs you are considering. Someone who will support you in making difficult choices. Someone with experience with service dogs, dog behavior, dog training. Please use care and be picky about the service dog trainer you work with! The closest or least expensive trainer may be the best choice, or they may not. For service dog training, you really need the best.
In the long run, booking a service dog consult or pre-adoption consult is likely to save you incalculable time and money. It may be hard to do if you think you have already learned everything you need to know. It may be difficult to think about spending money on dog training when you don’t even have a dog yet! However, that is actually the best time to invest. I have never yet heard a client say that they regretted investing in preventing a problem. If worst comes to worst, you have wasted some money because everything is so perfect you didn’t need help. That’s a pretty good problem to have! (And extremely unusual.)
On the other hand, I hear very often from people who are full of regret for not contacting me sooner. The long-term costs of which — in time, emotional devastation, and money — are much, much higher.
There are no shortcuts to training a service dog. It is a long and winding road. But you can get help along the way to make the road that much smoother and more likely to get you to your final destination. And now you know five detours not to take.
I wish you all the best on your service dog training journey!