Choosing Your Service Dog Candidate
Choosing your Service Dog Candidate
The first step in the journey of becoming a service dog handler/user is to obtain the right dog for the job. For our program, there are two primary options:
- Purchase a puppy from a breeder
- Adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue
Each of these options has its own pros and cons, and the final decision should be based on the scenario that best fits the handler’s needs, goals, and lifestyle. Below are a description of the main differences, pros, and cons between the two options:
Purchase a Puppy From a Breeder
Purchasing a puppy from a known, reputable breeder has many benefits: you know the genetic history of the dog, you are getting a mostly predictable set of breed traits, and with a good breeder you are getting some sort of health benefit or guarantee. All of these things are very attractive when choosing a dog that could become a life-saving piece of medical equipment.
However, the up-front costs of a puppy can be very significant depending on a variety of factors, and it comes with the risk that the puppy you purchase may not end up working out as a service dog for any number of reasons. Even with organizations that have an in-house breeding program that specifically selects for service dog temperaments, the failure rate is approximately 50%. In a more typical sample of dogs (even those bred for working temperament), the percentage that have the correct combination of temperament and trainability is about 1 in 10.
Additionally, research has found that the accuracy of puppy temperament tests in predicting adult temperament is not much better than random chance, and Wind River Canine Partners does not endorse any particular puppy temperament test nor guarantee the outcome of our in-house assessment on dogs younger than about 9 months old. WRCP recommends working closely with a breeder who understands the traits you are looking for and matching you with a puppy from a litter based on their knowledge and observations. We do not recommend owner-selection of puppies unless he or she has a background or experience in understanding and observing canine behavior.
The primary benefits of purchasing a puppy from a breeder are:
- Known parents and genetic history
- Predictable breed/bloodline traits
- Health guarantees from breeder
- Ability to control and shape socialization and exposure, and prevent problem behaviors from arising.
- Beginning foundation and task training at an early age
The potential risks or downsides to purchasing a puppy from a breeder are:
- Time from acquisition of the dog to having a working service dog is approximately 18 months-2 years. Owners are acting in the same capacity as a puppy raiser for the first year of the dog’s life. Basic training and some task training can be done early but public access training does not begin until a puppy is approximately 1 year old
- Risk of the puppy developing a health or behavioral issue that does not allow the dog to continue with training.
In conclusion, here are the major factors when considering purchasing or beginning with a puppy:
- There is often a significant up-front cost to purchasing a puppy from a breeder that should be factored in to your overall costs for owning and training a service dog.
- Do you have the time to dedicate to raising a service dog prospect puppy? This includes daily training and socialization excursions and, depending on where you live, may involve significant time and travel costs.
- What happens if the puppy you have purchased ends up not working out? Are you able/willing to start over with another dog (both financially and emotionally)? Will you keep this puppy or do you need to rehome it?
Adopt an adolescent or adult dog from a shelter or a rescue:
Choosing to adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue can be a scary prospect, but there can also be huge advantages. One of the biggest benefits in choosing a slightly older dog (aged approximately 10 months – 2 years old) is that we can more reliably assess a dog for the correct temperament and trainability for service dog work than we can with a puppy, because an older dog’s personality is not going to change very much from our initial evaluation. Thus, our pre-screening protocols are going to be more likely to give us an accurate view of a dog’s success or failure before we ever start training. There is the additional benefit of being able to complete training in a shorter amount of time, because we don’t have to account for an adolescent or young adult dog’s age or level of maturity. You are still likely going to need a minimum of 6 months to be considered a reliable team (and that’s if everything goes perfectly) but time to completion is generally shorter in this scenario.
However, shelter dogs can come with a lot of unknowns. Many times you will not know where the dog has come from or even what kind of dog it is. You don’t know if the dog has poor breeding in its background or if the dog has any specific triggers from past events that might cause a negative reaction. While we do our best to account for the biggest positive and negative traits of a service dog candidate, there are some things that are unique to every dog.
With a potential shelter dog candidate, we pre-screen these dogs prior to adoption for correct temperament and we also ask that new owners spend a minimum of 2 weeks at home with a dog after adopting it to ensure that the dog fits into the owner’s home and that no concerning behaviors arise once the dog is away from the shelter environment.
The primary benefits of adopting a dog from a shelter are:
- Temperament tests are more accurate on older dogs
- Total training time can sometimes be shorter
- Adoption fees are generally less expensive than breeder purchase prices
- You’ve given a home and purpose to a dog who needed it!
The potential risks or downsides to adopting a shelter dog are:
- Unknown history and possible baggage
- Behaviors that weren’t present at the shelter/during initial assessment might crop up away from the shelter environment
- Dog may not actually be the age or breed the shelter claims
In conclusion, here are some of the major factors to consider in regards to adopting a service dog candidate from the shelter:
- Be willing to overlook appearances/breeds and look at temperament (with the exception of candidates that have size/weight requirements, like mobility dogs)
- Understand that there will likely be an adjustment period for a shelter dog transitioning between homes
- If a concerning/red flag behavior crops up after taking the dog home, being aware that it may require you to return the dog to the shelter and begin your search over again.