Selection Is a Very Important Step
Just as I stated in the introduction, each dog is unique in a way that its trainability may vary from Forest Gump to Albert Einstein. The good news is you can improve on this through training. However, there are some traits a dog could possess which are not easy to manipulate. This is why it is important to remember that genetics play a crucial role in the training process and overall outcome of your service dog. Think back to the bulk of service dogs you’ve seen, what breeds come to mind? Most likely you’re thinking of Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Poodle mixes. There’s a reason! A large fraction of the professionally trained service dogs has been specifically bred for this work. These traits include handler dependency, mild energy level, solid nerves, and overall health.
Even when carefully bred and tested for these traits, a lot of the puppies born into this line of work are washed out and sent to pet homes.
This being said, if you do choose to go to a breeder to select your service dog candidate, please do not make your final decision based on the phrase, “Aw, he likes me!” Many people make the mistake of assuming if the dog “chooses you” that it’s a perfect match. However, regardless of age, when it comes to selecting your superhero (I mean service dog), your criteria must be based on what your disability demands of him or her.
In accordance to the ADA definition of a service dog, it is imperative that you keep in mind what will be expected from your dog. For instance, if you lack mobility, you would select a dog that already enjoys holding objects in his/her mouth. This will be beneficial to you down the road when you teach commands such as bring, open/close, and hold. For some dogs, holding objects in their mouth is unpleasant, whereas for other dogs, it is a delight to do so. Furthermore, a non-discriminate mouth (a trait a dog possesses that allows them to not care what they hold in their mouth) will lessen the chances of you becoming frustrated with your dog’s unwillingness to do a task. Thus, hindering your training and potentially dampening your relationship.
Another example of mindful selection is focusing on inherit dependency (a trait a dog possesses that makes them focus more on their handler). This is a dog who is more comfortable sticking by his/her handler’s side than s/he is exploring and finding value in something or someone else. After all, what good is a service dog that can’t or won’t focus on his/her job? Imagine your disability is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like many suffering with this, you become panicked and stressed when faced with large crowds. If you have a dog who is more so interested in what the crowd is doing, how is s/he supposed to calm your storms? A dog who is naturally dependent on his/her handler will look to them for the answer as a default behavior (a behavior a dog goes to when in doubt of what s/he should do) in situations like this. This trait will allow for a strong foundation since you will have to put forth less effort to be the prevailing focus for your dog in any given situation. A good way to test these factors is by playing fetch with the dog. If s/he bring the toy back to you by default it is safe to predict that the dog will be willing to work with humans and should make some of the tasks less frustrating to teach. A dog that doesn’t bring it back and prefers to keep the toy to him/herself is showing signs that s/he may not be cooperative during task training and be more independent. Remember that anyone, including dogs, can have a bad day. Try these tests a few times over the course of a few weeks. Yes, of course any dog can be trained to retrieve objects but with this test you are assessing his/her eagerness to work with humans. Choosing a dog that does not naturally want to bring items back to you may need to be trained to do so with compulsion. This, although effective, requires more time and patience, and the dog will not enjoy his work as much as if s/he was willing. When testing, there are ways you can bring out this eagerness to retrieve if the dog you are testing is willing to please. These include using a clicker and reward for coming back with the toy or using another dog that does enjoy retrieving to elicit a competitive edge.
Earlier, we touched on common breeds used in this line of work. Labradors make wonderful service dogs as long as you get the right kind of Labrador. Dogs of the same breed are as similar as people of the same race. Yes, they have similar traits and physical features, but depending on their family tree they can differ greatly. Take for example a Field Lab – bred as a bird dog, extremely high energy. They’re the labs that tear up your home and knock Grandma over (with love) as she walks through the door. On the other hand, you have the English Lab. Often more plump and happy with being a couch potato. Pop quiz: which one would you feel more comfortable with out in public? If you said the Field Lab, you’re insane and should re-read Chapter One. Now, that’s not to say you can’t choose a dog that is low energy and also enjoys long walks or even hikes. However, an even-keeled service dog is much more likely to be content resting when his/her job calls for accompanying you to dinner at a fancy restaurant, reading in the library, or taking notes in a classroom or lecture hall.
This mellow attitude often plays a role in the dog’s nerves. We’ve all seen it, the family dog is sleeping on the floor, and someone accidentally steps on his/her tail. The dog both jumps up and runs away, acts out in aggression, or they’re barely fazed by it. The two actions come down to fight or flight (an inherent defense all animals possess that is triggered by perceived danger. Either the animal responds by running away or aggressing towards the danger) but the third is ideal. When a dog has good nerves, this means s/he is capable of maintaining composure in seemingly stressful situations. This doesn’t mean if a dog jumps in the air when a metal dog bowl hits the concrete floor that the dog is garbage. As long as the dog recovers, this can be worked on. How quickly a dog recovers from being startled will tell you how easy or difficult it will be to desensitize him/her to noises and new environments. When you select a dog with a long recovery time, you will most likely be spending most of your training getting your dog comfortable in a new environment. This takes away from working on their obedience and tasks in public. If you try to work on these things while they are in a nervous state, you will not only make little to no progress, but you will also create a negative association with those commands and tasks. Continue part 2